Candles for Ukraine

Russia launched a full-scale invasion of the democratic Ukraine on Feb. 24. By midsummer, the war still raged and entire cities had been captured. There was tragic loss of life and human suffering, massive damage to Ukraine’s physical infrastructure, and millions of refugees fleeing from their homeland.

In the U.S., the news of the war had dropped to the bottom of national broadcasts, if it was there at all, but it hadn’t faded in the hearts and minds of the customers who continue to buy Ukraine candles from Door County Candle Company in Carlsville. 

Neither had it weakened in the heart and mind of the company’s owner, Christiana Gorchynsky-Trapani, herself a second-generation American Ukrainian. Or her husband, Nic. Or their family members and employees and the more than 500 volunteers who have logged 8,000-plus hours helping them make, sell and ship more than 75,000 candles – to date.

“They like having a physical symbol that they’re standing behind Ukraine and are able to support it in this way,” Gorchynsky-Trapani said about her customers. “I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time.”

What they’ve accomplished transcends symbolic support. Door County Candle Company donates 100% of the profits from the sale of the candles to a nonprofit organization, Razom for Ukraine. (“Razom” means “together” in Ukrainian.) As of July, the candle company had donated $700,000 to that organization. The money goes toward critical medical supplies and humanitarian war relief and recovery, including the evacuation of vulnerable populations. 

Part of this relief begins in the United States with volunteers packing medical supplies in a New York City warehouse. Pallets full of the supplies are then flown to Poland and distributed to almost 30 cities in Ukraine. In war-torn areas where it’s too dangerous to send human volunteers, drones drop the supplies.

Door County Candle Company donations are, quite simply, “keeping people in Ukraine alive,” said Dora Chomiak, Razom’s president. 

Who knew that a vanilla-scented candle colored with two equally sized bands of yellow and blue, selling for $29.95, could have such a life-changing impact on an embattled people?

Nobody. Certainly not Gorchynsky-Trapani herself.

Christiana Gorchynsky-Trapani and her husband, Nic Trapani. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

From Seven to 75,000-Plus Candles

Gorchynsky-Trapani’s parents, George and Natalie, are first-generation American Ukrainians, George’s parents having immigrated to Chicago following World War II. George is an emergency-room physician at Door County Medical Center, where he also serves as chair and director of the emergency room. 

The family has been in Door County for almost 20 years, moving to the peninsula when Christiana was in second grade. George and Natalie sent their children to school in the Sevastopol School District –

5,266 miles from Sevastopol, Ukraine.

The family has retained its ties with and the language of its Ukrainian relatives. On the day when Russia invaded Ukraine, Gorchynsky-Trapani, with her parents and grandmother, called her aunt in western Ukraine. Her grandmother, sitting beside her on the couch, could not stop shaking as she relived World War II.

“We were just grieving and crying,” Gorchynsky-Trapani said. “All we did was sit in this room on the phone with her, and we were all crying. After that call, I said to Nic, ‘We need to do something. I have to do something. I cannot just sit here and cry.’”

They had made the Ukraine candle earlier that year for a Catholic School fundraiser in Ukraine. They hadn’t sold very many and still had seven at the shop, but they had the formula ready to go. Gorchynsky-Trapani decided to sell those and donate the profits, and maybe, just maybe, more people would want the candle. 

“Even if we just sell 10 or 20, it’s still going to help, and that’s what matters,” she said.

It was a freezing Saturday in February when she made that decision. In the front shop, Nic Trapani was taping up the candle shop, getting ready to paint it. In the back of the shop, Gorchynsky-Trapani recorded a short video for her social-media pages telling people she was making the Ukraine candles and would donate 100% of the profits. 

They sold the seven in the shop to walk-ins that afternoon, with another

13 ordered. 

By the time they left for dinner that evening, they had more than 500 orders – almost twice the number of candles they could make at one time in their 3,200-square-foot shop. Within three days, they had sold 4,500 candles. 

Within a week, local and regional news media had picked up their story. It went viral. They were on the TODAY show and PBS. They couldn’t answer the 300 phone calls that came into the shop daily. In March, a Door County Coffee and Tea employee walked a message over from next door, hand-scrawled on a napkin: “David Muir with World News Tonight wants you to return the call. This is not a joke.”

They appeared on the show that night. Candle orders crashed their website.

And the painter’s tape is still stuck to the walls.

Christiana Gorchynsky-Trapani has owned Door County Candle Company since June 2021, after purchasing it from Mike Felhofer (shown), who has used his experience to pitch in during the candle drive for Ukraine. Photo by D.A. Fitzgerald.

Ramping Up Production

Door County Candle Company may have had a big reputation before Gorchynsky-Trapani purchased it from Mike Felhofer in June 2021, but it was still a small, specialty candle shop with handcrafted products. Its business model – production, website, a handful of part-time employees – could produce, package and ship some 15,000 candles a year, not 15,000 a month.

“We did not have a system for such volume,” Gorchynsky-Trapani said. Christiana and Nic had to rethink everything, solving one bottleneck at a time. 

They found faster ways to produce the candles – simple things, but game-changers, such as pancake-batter dispensers for the hand pour, and moving the candles closer together during the drying process to be able to create that many more at a time.

They automated the packaging process and beat supply-chain disruptions to get the glass they need, the 1,000 pounds of wax they go through in a week and the 55-gallon drum of vanilla fragrance they drain every three or four days. 

They’re now able to move up to 800 candles a day out the door.

“We’ve had to come up with ways to speed the process up, and we’ve continued to do that,” Trapani said. “Even just two weeks ago, we came up with another way to speed things up and double the production capacity.”

But they always talk about their ability to fulfill their orders by talking about the community that has helped them get there.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner, advice and support have been provided by local businesses and individuals. Sometimes the support has come at crucial moments when their 14- to 16-hour days threatened to overwhelm them. 

Door County Coffee and Tea, their next-door neighbor, has stored up to 26 skids of material for them and introduced them to the company that built the Ukraine box and supplied the machine that packaged it. 

Gorchynsky-Trapani said the coffee and tea company has been such a great partner that the project would not have been successful without its support.

“This is a great story also about community,” Trapani said.

The story doesn’t end here. Gorchynsky-Trapani’s goal is to donate $1 million, and she doesn’t plan to stop. Even after the war ends, she said there will be a country to rebuild. 

“We can all make a difference,” Gorchynsky-Trapani said. “One candle at a time, we can really help people directly in Ukraine. That gives us the passion to keep going, to heal us.”

And if Russia conquers Ukraine?

“They won’t,” she said immediately.

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