By Greg Dawson

Anderson arrived at the home of his Lviv host family, the Gnativs, in December, 2016. Pictured above is Anderson with (left to right) Nazaar, Denis, Vika, Khris, Luba (holding Anya) and Solimiya. Father Oleh Gnativs is a furniture maker, but since the invasion furniture sales have stalled. So Anderson sponsored Khris so she could work in the United States and send money home to her family while continuing her university education online. The Gnativises are among thousands of lives Anderson has touched in Ukraine.

Glenn Anderson, formerly a teacher at Winter Park High School and a volunteer for the Peace Corps, is a 63-year-old bald and bespectacled history geek, a lover of putt-putt golf and Silly String with a “marshmallow” heart who cries at the drop of a hat. 

He’s not your central-casting arms dealer. He just plays one — well, sort of — in Ukraine, where the topsy-turvy madness of war has turned Russians into killers of their brother Ukrainians and cast an apostle of peace in the role of tactical
rifle-scope supplier.

“I had the opportunity to buy a sniper rifle,” says Anderson, a University of Central Florida graduate who taught history for 27 years in Orange County schools, the final 11 of those years at Winter Park High. “But some of the people who gave money felt uncomfortable about their donations being used for lethal aid, so a sniper scope is as far as I went.”

So, granted, the term “arms dealer” may be a bit hyperbolic to describe Anderson’s midlife career, which began in 2016 when he left teaching, ended his marriage and fulfilled a lifelong dream to join the Peace Corps — which sent him to Ukraine. There, an incongruous destiny awaited.

When Anderson arrived, before winds of war from the north, he enjoyed halcyon days in the newly independent nation. He fell in love with the people and culture and re-upped three times, serving stints of around two years each and returning home between deployments to visit family (or to hike the Appalachian Trail). 

In Ukraine, he taught at Lviv Polytechnic National University. He also conducted English classes, volunteered at a kindergarten, organized and led three camps per year (optimistically dubbed “Camp Believe”) and launched professional development workshops for teachers in addition to his duties as a leader of other volunteers in the region.

In 2019, on his 59th birthday, Anderson’s colleagues at Lviv Polytechnic made a photo album of his time in Ukraine. The department head offered a toast to the energetic expatriate, who had become part of the family. 

“Our life is a train that quickly runs from station to station, passengers get on and off. We do not even notice some of them. Others enter our compartment and fill our lives with new thoughts and feelings, new experiences and reflections. And I think this second option is about you, Glenn.”

When Anderson — whom some Ukrainians joked resembled Breaking Bad antihero Walter White — returned to Ukraine in 2021, it was as a private citizen and a visiting professor at Lviv Polytechnic. But if politics makes strange bedfellows, war makes even stranger, more unexpected heroes. 

Nearly three birthdays later, in January 2022, Anderson wrote an essay for the Orlando Sentinel in which he noted: “As an American, I’ve had the good fortune to never have been in a country on the verge of invasion. Until now.”

A month later, the Russians invaded. Anderson stayed, ignoring advice to beat a hasty retreat from his uncle, Terry Anderson, a journalist abducted in Beirut in 1985 by militants of the Islamic Jihad in Iran and not released until nearly seven years later. 

Terry Anderson was, in fact, the longest-held American hostage to date. (That distinction now belongs to Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent held 13 years by Iran before his death in captivity in 2020.) This was a man who knew a thing or two about living and working in countries under siege.

“Although I elected to stay, I didn’t take [Terry’s] advice lightly,” says Anderson, who looks much like his uncle. “But he recently wrote to tell me that he’d been wrong. He said: ‘Andersons and Ukrainians are survivors.’ I told him Ukrainians are survivors — Andersons are just stubborn.” 

Perhaps genetically so. Anderson recalls that when he was a youngster, his dad had a drawing taped above his desk at work of a hawk with its talons out, about to snatch a mouse. “The mouse was just standing there with his middle finger raised to the hawk,” he recalls. “I guess that’s the family trait that kept me here after the invasion.”

Notes Anderson’s sister, Dawn Coulliette, who owns Mia Bella Salon & Spa in the Lake County town of Fruitland Park: “That’s just who Terry is. He loves to help the underdog.”

No country in memory seemed a greater underdog than Ukraine, as Putin’s war of blanket destruction ravaged cities and small towns and killed thousands of innocent people, including children. “I couldn’t look at another picture or film of Bucha or Mariupol or these other destroyed cities and not do something,” says Anderson. “I had to do something.”

So he developed an impromptu master class in wartime philanthropy and emergency relief. From Ukraine, he gave Skype presentations to Winter Park High and the Winter Park Rotary Club and contacted friends and relatives across Central Florida seeking donations and emergency relief supplies. 

The first to give were clients of his sister’s salon, where one older woman who couldn’t contribute money crocheted seven blankets. Winter Park High students, led by social studies teacher Tim Arnold, collected 40 boxes of mostly medical supplies, all 758 pounds of which were sent to Ukraine by the local Rotarians. 

A former student wrote to Anderson with a unique offer. “She said her father was a gun collector and had several Soviet AK-47s that he was willing to mail to me,” he says. “I thought, ‘Only in America.’ I told her that it was impossible to ship arms through the mail, so the family generously gave a thousand dollars.”

Anderson also got Ukrainians engaged in helping one another. “The husband of a university colleague runs a chain of small grocery stores in Lviv,” he says. “He arranged for trucks and drivers and sold me food at cost, so I was able to send $880 worth of food supplies to a Lviv regiment fighting in Kramatorsk.”

The life-long educator and protector of underdogs now funnels the supplies needed to win (or simply survive) a war — from drones and rifle scopes to bullet-proof vests and uniforms to boots and bandages. Anderson is the Florida mouse that roared, raising his middle finger to Putin.

At this writing, June 1, some $20,000 in money and supplies had been donated to Anderson to distribute as he saw fit. However, he’s quick to point out that his effort is a personal one, and that those wishing to help should direct their resources to established aid agencies. “I never asked for money,” Anderson says. “It just happened spontaneously.” 

That’s like saying roses bloom spontaneously from fertilized soil. The outpouring of support was triggered by Anderson’s constant updates over the years to Dawn and to former Winter Park High colleagues like Patty Schoene, a retired English teacher who alerted me to his mission.

Anderson — whom I interviewed using Zoom (the connections were balky) and via email exchanges — also shares engaging and informative selfie videos as he walks the streets of Lviv, often wearing a gray-and-orange Winter Park High T-shirt and sometimes sharing dark anecdotes about the realities of war that you don’t find even in the best journalism.

For example, there’s the orphanage director who clandestinely placed children in the homes of teachers so they wouldn’t be kidnapped by Russians, and nurses who shielded healthy infants from a similar fate by listing them as critically ill and placing them on ventilators.

On a recent video, he reflects on a brief respite from the blaring sirens and ear-shattering explosions: “Finally spring weather has arrived. Street musicians, old ladies selling flowers, couples walking hand-in-hand, families with children. You could almost forget a war is going on. For a fraction of a minute, I wondered if we should feel guilty.” 

He continues: “Then I thought, no. After the winter Ukraine has had — so many anniversaries and birthdays canceled and everything else the Russians have taken from these people — there’s no reason to feel guilty because we’re enjoying a beautiful spring day.”

Perhaps Anderson’s greatest contribution to Ukraine is something money can’t buy — unsinkable American optimism. “I believe the war will be over this year,” he says. “I don’t think the Russians can hold out. And when it’s over, Ukraine is going to see a renaissance. Tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars will flow in to rebuild the country.”

Anderson has even continued Camp Believe, which welcomes teachers and students. There he introduces attendees to a range of activities — including Silly String and mini-golf — that reflect the cracked mirror of war. (“Nobody does fun better than Americans,” he notes.) But he also invites soldiers to speak about weapons safety and first aid for trauma. 

“One of my goals as a Peace Corps volunteer was to let Ukrainians see their country through my eyes,” he says. “Before this, they thought, ‘Everyone does everything better than we do.’ They bought into Russian propaganda that Ukrainians are backward; that they don’t have a culture. This war has taught them: ‘Look at what we’ve done. Look at who we are.’”

Tim Arnold once told Anderson: “It almost sounds like you’re becoming Ukrainian yourself.” It’s true that Anderson hasn’t been home in two years. He takes weekly lessons to polish his language skills, which he says are good enough to ask directions and play games with children but “I can’t engage in a literary discussion about Marcel Proust — or Dr. Seuss for that matter.”

Where, then, is “home” now?

“I struggle with this,” Anderson says. “I’m waiting to help with the rebuilding of the country. But I’m still American. As well as I’ve integrated into the culture, people look at me and know I’m not Ukrainian. The waitress brings me the English menu even before I open my mouth.”

For now, the train has left the station and Glenn Anderson is onboard with his Ukrainian family, confident that it’s the peace train. 

Greg Dawson is a journalist and author. He has worked as a reporter, a television critic, a metro columnist and consumer columnist. His most recent book, with Susan Hood, is Alias Anna: A True Story of Outwitting the Nazis (HarperCollins, 2022). Dawson is a contributing writer for Winter Park Magazine.

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