Irina Esterlis, PhD, felt a range of emotions after war broke out in her homeland of Ukraine, where she still has family.
Anger and helplessness were replaced by sadness and despair over the loss of life and destruction of cities and villages. She put her work on pause. For days all she could do was cry.
“And then I was like I need to do something,” said Esterlis, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. “And what do I do best?”
“If I was there (in Ukraine) I’d be making bombs. That’s my personality. I wouldn’t just sit there and do nothing,” she said. “So, if I can’t make bombs, I’m going to make bread.”
Not just any bread, but a special Ukrainian stuffed poppyseed roll that Esterlis remembers eating – but not necessarily enjoying – when she was child growing up in Ukraine, where she lived in Kyiv until she moved with her family to the United States in 1989. Now this treat has become a much-coveted staple that she and her family enjoy.
Baking from scratch gave Esterlis relief from the stress of watching the news and seeing her homeland being erased by Russian bombs.
Then she had a thought: What if she offered to bake this special bread for people in exchange for them donating to charities that are providing humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian people and paying for equipment to help soldiers fight against the Russians?
She set the minimum donation at $100 and emailed co-workers and friends. Her husband, Donald, put a post on social media. Immediately donations began coming in, and Esterlis got out her rolling pin and began baking. Before long she had raised over $6,000 for the cause.
“I’m not seeking attention. This is what I could do to help,” she said. “Imagine if where you grew up was getting leveled and everybody was getting killed. All I want is for the war to stop.”
Esterlis came to the U.S. from Ukraine 33 years ago. She went to high school in America, received her undergraduate degree from the University of Buffalo, then did her master’s and doctoral work at the University of Connecticut.
She came to Yale in 2004 for her internship and postdoc work and then joined the faculty in the Yale Department of Psychiatry, where she works as a researcher.
Esterlis is not alone. There are many professionals at Yale with ties to Ukraine. Esterlis and colleagues from Internal Medicine, Surgery, Obstetrics, Pediatrics, and others formed a group, “United for Ukraine.” They are raising awareness about the war. They are fundraising to support established charities and to deliver medical supplies to Ukrainian hospitals where life-saving equipment is running short. All are working for Ukraine’s survival since Russia’s invasion.
Esterlis still has family and lifetime friends in Ukraine, the Kyiv and Odessa regions, but also has family in Moscow. "I don't know who I'm more scared for," she said, adding that she worries for people in both countries.
Baking has been a distraction since the war broke out. It has always been a form of stress relief for Esterlis, who said she used to enjoy art and dancing before her schedule got too busy.
"To me it's about being active," she said. "If I sit and relax my brain is churning but I'm doing nothing. (Baking) is active, working with your hands where you're doing stuff and thinking I will bring pleasure to someone who is eating it, knowing they will enjoy it."
She is well equipped to handle the expected influx or orders for her bread, which she creates from her own recipe with inspiration from authentic Ukrainian recipes she has found online.
Last year for Mother's Day she got a professional mixer, and she has two ovens at home. She found a good source for flour and is enjoying creating homemade breads knowing that the money they are generating is making a difference in Ukraine.
Esterlis created an email address to take bread orders: firstname.lastname@example.org so people can donate to her directly.
Money sent to Esterlis will be used to buy, among other things, bulletproof vests, helmets, and other military equipment for Ukrainian volunteer fighters at the war front, she said. Proceeds will also fund medical equipment and medication supplies to military hospitals across Ukraine, from Lviv in the West, Kyiv at the heart and Kharkiv in the East of the country.
The work has consumed Esterlis for a few weeks and has helped her manage the helplessness felt by so many people who just want the war to end.
“Just having more things to do and finding more people to help gives you purpose,” she said. “All you want to do is help.”