Door County candlemakers mobilize for Ukraine

One day after Ukraine was invaded, an artisan candle business based in Sturgeon Bay moved to sell a blue-and-yellow solidarity candle to raise money for an emergency aid charity — tens of thousands of orders later, this fundraiser has turned into a community effort.

By Marisa Wojcik | Here & Now

March 17, 2022 • Northeast Region

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“I remember I was sitting and watching the news two weeks ago, and I was so mad, and I was hurt, and I was upset and I was feeling helpless,” said Christiana Gorchynsky Trapani. She wanted to take action as she saw images of Russian forces brutally attack Ukraine and its people.

“I was talking to my family, and I was like, I need to do something with this anger, Trapani said.

As a second-generation Ukrainian, her mission was personal.

“I knew I wanted to do something to help,” Trapani added. “So I figured, well, I know how to make candles, we have a candle company. Let’s use this.”

Owner of a small artisan shop called Door County Candle Company, she began making candles with blue and yellow wax, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

“I wrote a post on Facebook and just did a little preview that I’m going to be launching a fundraiser tomorrow. Stay tuned,” she recalled. “We woke up and we’re like, oh my God! A thousand. OK, 2,000. OK, three!”

Two-and-a-half weeks later, the orders reached 20,000.

Christiana Gorchynsky Trapani sits in front of shelves stacked with candles.

Door County Candle Company owner Christiana Gorchynsky Trapani was moved to take action to do something to help Ukrainians after the Russian invasion started. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

“That’s like what we typically would sell in a year,” Trapani noted — 20,000 candles that are made by hand in a small shop in Sturgeon Bay.

“I think I cry every day just hearing the stories and I could cry now,” she added. “It means so much, and it means that so many people want to help, and so many people were feeling helpless and just didn’t know how to help.

Moved by the news and Trapani’s energy, volunteers in the community have turned out in support, including the shop’s founder, who sold the business to her last summer.

“We saw that she had sold 3,000 candles in a day. I said, well, I think they’re going to need a little help,” said former owner Mike Felhofer.

“He was like, “Can I help?” I’m like, “Yes, when can you be here?” He’s like, “I’ll be there in 10 minutes,” said Trapani.

“Been here ever since and that was a couple of weeks ago,” Felhofer added.

“He’s indefinitely out of retirement for now,” joked Trapani.

Mike Felhofer sits in front of shelves stacked with candles.

Mike Felhofer, former owner of the Door County Candle Company, is lending a hand as the business makes tens of thousands of its Ukraine candles ordered by customers. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

“I’ve never experienced anything quite like this,” explained Felhofer. “I’ve made a lot of candles in my day, but never anything like this.”

To handle the new volume of orders, Felhofer is helping implement new ways to streamline the labor- and time-intensive process.

“I find it heartwarming — the degree of support that we’ve gotten. It’s amazing,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of good things in this community, but this type of support has been just utterly amazing.”

This project means a lot to another volunteer: Trapani’s father, Dr. George Gorchynsky.

“I have to be here. I have to help,” he said.

When Gorchnysky is not doing 12-hour shifts as an ER physician, he’s doing 12-hour shifts helping his daughter.

“I’m first-generation Ukrainian. My parents immigrated from Ukraine right after World War II and I was raised Ukrainian. In fact, I spoke Ukrainian until first grade,” he said.

Dr. George Gorchynsky sits in front of shelves stacked with candles.

Dr. George Gorchynsky, an ER doctor Sturgeon Bay, is lending a hand to help his daughter keep up with the pace of public interest in the Ukraine candles. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Gorchynsky and Christiana’s mother passed the language on to their children.

“It was my first language. I learned Ukrainian before I learned English, and that’s how I talk to my grandparents: only in Ukrainian,” Trapani said. “It’s kept me really close to my culture and my heritage.”

Trapani’s maternal grandmother took the news of the Russian invasion hard.

“My grandma was born in Ukraine. She is the only grandparent of mine left. We were sitting with her, and she just started to cry and shake and just relive war when she was a kid,” said Trapani. “I never thought that something like that could happen in 2022.”

“It’s just heartbreaking,” added her father. “It’s an absolute catastrophe what’s going on. It’s World War II all over again. That’s what it is. In fact, my wife’s mom has memories of things that happened during the war and as a child — and she was there. It’s just brought tears to her eyes. She’s in total disbelief.”

Gorchynsky said his mother-in-law is lending a hand as well.

“She’s at home right now here, and she’s stickering bags and doing things. She’s 82 years old, and she’s helping out as well,” he said. “So it’s all hands on deck.”

All of the profits made from selling the Ukraine candle are being donated to a Ukrainian nonprofit called Razom for Ukraine.

“It’s helping provide bandages and tourniquets and medical supplies to those that are in Ukraine and need it most. Our first donation was on [March 11] for $125,000,” said Trapani.

“A lot of tears were flowing after that. It was just incredible,” she added. “That’s the first of many donation installments that we’re going to make.”

At the onset of the project, Trapani’s goals were more modest.

“I really thought we’d only sell like a hundred. I really didn’t think we’d sell more,” she said.

“I still laugh when Christiana said, ‘You know, if I could sell 300 candles, I’d be so happy.’ Well, you know, that ship has sailed,” said Gorchynsky.

“I couldn’t be more proud of her if she were my own daughter,” said Felhofer. “I’ve mentored to her, but now she’s taken this to another level. I’ll tell her she’s got a tiger by the tail. Now she knows she has to figure out how to bring that under control, and I’m here to help, however I can.”

“We’re so proud of her. We never expected this kind of response — never,” Felhofer said. “A lot of good comes out of evil, in many ways.”

“We’re standing with Ukraine and providing light in the darkness,” Trapani added.

Rows of candles in glass jars with a top blue layer and a bottom yellow layer sit on a table.

The Ukraine candle created by the Door County Candle Company has two layers — blue on top and yellow on the bottom — to evoke the Ukrainian flag. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

“Слава Україні!” she exclaimed.

“Слава Україні! Героям слава!,” echoed Gorchynsky.

“Glory to Ukraine! Glory to its heroes!” he repeated in translation, smiling.

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