'It's a come-together moment for us just to convey the message that people are suffering and that your neighbors care.'
Bethenny Frankel and Maksim Chmerkovskiy may be an unlikely duo, but this former "Real Housewife" and Dancing With the Stars pro have formed an unbreakable bond over an admirable cause: Unify Ukraine, an effort aimed at raising Americans' awareness of Russia's ongoing occupation of Ukraine and its devastating impact on the Ukrainian people.
Parade spoke with the two philanthropists ahead of Ukraine's Day of Unity, happening on Sunday, Jan. 22, and the duo had a lot to say about their near year-long stride raising money, organizing supplies, and rallying support for the nation—but our conversation made it abundantly clear that this was not about them.
"Unify Ukraine is an effort to remind people that the war rages on long after the news isn't talking about it," Frankel explained. "It's not anywhere near over," noting, "Maks and I are simply messengers to spread awareness."
"We're trying to draw attention that it [Ukraine] needs more help," Chmerkovskiy added. "That's not to say the U.S. didn't help, it's not to say that it hasn't done enough, it's to say that it's still going on, and we still need to be aware of it."
Chmerkovskiy and Frankel previously joined forces last year after Russia's initial invasion, to raise money for Ukraine, and the two were wildly successful.
The BStrong Initiative, led by Frankel, has continued to supply over $10 million in aid, supplies, and other necessities directly to those in need. She told us that the initiative has had people on the ground directly supporting communities impacted by Russia's invasion for the past year, listing off names of those working to organize its supply-filled warehouses, it's welcome center for refugees in Poland, housing facilities, relocation assistance, and other humanitarian efforts that have now expanded to neighboring communities in Hungary and Romania.
Now, she said, the next step is to help spread awareness.
Frankel illustrated the value of social media and the importance of PSA campaigns like this by underscoring the significance of community. "For people to post a picture of a sunflower on Jan. 22, it's a come-together moment for us just to convey the message that people are suffering and that your neighbors care," she said.
"Without seeing images or it being current in our news cycle, we don't really realize how bad it is, and it's terrible—it's heartbreaking," the RHONY alum shared, later adding that "there's education in philanthropy" and even though people want to help, they don't always know how.
Recalling his journey in Ukraine a year ago, Chmerkovskiy also spoke about the benefits of using social media to educate those far away from the devastation. "A year ago, in Kyiv, I got stuck, and I made it public. It was a cry for help; I'm not a brave soul just putting out messages. It was like, 'here I am, and this is really happening.'"
He admitted that in the beginning, he "tried to do everything one person could" to echo the severity of the situation to the world, eventually overwhelming himself—and that's when Frankel stepped in to help him organize and boost his platform.
"It's like putting the face to the issue," he said. "I'm just a guy to run this message through and try to multiply it in this country, which I believe is the most philanthropic nation on earth."
An installation of 335 sunflowers—one for every day Russia has occupied Ukraine—is also set to debut alongside the social media campaign in New York City's Flatiron Plaza on Thursday, Jan. 19, running through Ukraine's Day of Unity on Sunday.
Chmerkovskiy later underscored that Unify Ukraine and the initiatives taken by the BStrong Initiative are unlike any other organizations celebrities may promote due to its very transparent efforts.
"There's no big gala, no rubber chicken dinner, no entertainment, or pamphlets or flyers; it's money directly to people," Frankel clarified. And for that, Chmerkovskiy said it will always have his unwavering support.
For more information on Unify Ukraine or to make your own sunflower meme to share on social media, please visit UnifyUkraineCampaign.org. To learn more about the BStrong Initiative or to pledge your support, check out https://bethenny.com/bstrong.