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UTCSW Student Jacob Huff Embodies the True Vol Spirit while Volunteering in War-Torn Ukraine

MSSW student Jacob Huff embodies what it means to be a Tennessee Vol. Huff is in his last year of the Nashville MSSW program with plans to graduate this May. Born and raised in Nashville and a proud graduate of Metro Nashville Public Schools, Huff has always had a passion for helping others. When deciding on a graduate degree, Huff said the reputation of the UTCSW program in Nashville made it an easy decision. “I had countless social workers in town, including administrators at large nonprofit agencies, highly recommend the program to me,” he said. “They specifically held in high regard the excellence of professors, administrators, and staff in the program. Furthermore, the college’s values and intentionality aligned with mine, which made me know it was the right decision for me to apply.”

Huff acknowledged that the skills and tools he has learned as part of his Macro Social Work coursework have been valuable to his career. “In our classes, we not only learn Macro Social Work theory on a theoretical level, but we also learn how to apply these skills in real-world settings,” he explained. “My professors assign insightful readings that are relevant and create assignments that are all centered on application in the field. The comprehensive education we receive regarding governmental policies, non-profit operations, and social systems is important to being a competent Macro Social Worker in today’s world.”

While finishing his coursework and focusing on graduation, Huff’s attention suddenly took an unexpected turn. Hearing about the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, Huff felt an overwhelming need to do something to help. Unsure of what impact he could make from his safe and secure residence in Nashville, Huff made a selfless and brave decision to travel to Ukraine to volunteer and help the locals on their terms and on their turf. “I started doing humanitarian aid work in Ukraine starting in June of 2023 and I returned for six weeks this past December and January during my winter break,” he said. “I was drawn to volunteer work in Ukraine because I wanted to support their people in their fight for freedom. There is right and wrong in this world. I want to be able to tell my future children one day that, in a very small way, I did something to try to help the Ukrainian people. This past year my volunteer work has been in Lviv, Kyiv, Odesa, and Kharkiv, working on a variety of tasks that include food distribution, helping at a youth summer camp for refugee children, and construction work on bombed houses and schools.”

The majority of his time in Ukraine has been in the northeastern city of Kharkiv at an organization called Pekelna Kuhnya, or in English, Hell’s Kitchen. Pekelna Kuhnya cooks 1,200 meals a day, seven days a week, for hospitals and internally displaced people in Kharkiv. It is a team of 50 local volunteers comprised of everyday people in Kharkiv, including schoolteachers, doctors, retirees, high school students, and first responders. “The limited number of hospitals left operating in Kharkiv, and in the outlying areas are overwhelmed by the volume of patients due to the approximately 480,000 internally displaced people now living in the city and further exacerbated by the daily injuries and deaths taking place from the bombing of the city,” Huff explained. “Most of the hospitals in the outlying areas have been destroyed or are inoperable, so the 1,200 healthy meals that Pekelna Kuhnya provides every day to the nine hospitals in the area are critical to their basic functioning. They partner with multiple non-profit organizations in the city, most significantly being Holy Trinity Church, which assists with deliveries.”

Huff quickly developed a strong fondness for Kharkiv and its people, feeling a deep similarity to Nashville. “Kharkiv has rolling hills, lots of music and cafes, and beautiful architecture,” he described. “It has the activities of a city but still has a small-town feel like Nashville. The people are welcoming and very hospitable, just like back home.”

Putting his fear aside and focusing on the people and their immediate needs allowed Huff to use his social work skills in real-time and without hesitation. “The invaders were about an hour and fifteen minutes outside Kharkiv where heavy fighting was taking place,” he revealed. “The Russian border is only 20 miles to the north of Kharkiv, so missiles would often hit without warning. Nonetheless, people carried on with their lives courageously. Even after a loud night of bombing, people went to work the next day. Children went to school and played in the park. Everyday activities, just like in Nashville, brought a strong sense of familiarity, but also existed in such starkly different circumstances that they were incomprehensible for me to fully understand.”

Since returning to Nashville, Huff has been assisting Pekelna Kuhnya with grant writing. “They have some financial support from the UN Food Program and Nova Ukraine, but as funding for Ukraine has dramatically lowered, Pekelan Kuhnya currently needs significant additional funding to help with day-to-day food and utility costs,” he explained. “I am helping them apply for international grants to help with these operating expenses by assisting with editing their grant proposals. I learned very comprehensive grant writing skills from my professor, Dr. Harold Benus, this past Fall semester. The grant writing education I received has proven essential to the volunteer work I am currently doing. My education went deeply into the nuance and attention to detail of what successful grant writing requires, and I feel equipped for success in grant writing because of my education at UTCSW.”

After graduation, Huff wants to continue working in social work, either in humanitarian aid or in a school setting. “Social Work is a great field to work in,” he said. “You get to help people and make a difference in the world. Social work is a very broad field, so during your career, you can work in a variety of areas. I cannot speak highly enough about the quality of education I have received from the professors, staff, and administrators. They care deeply about each student, and I immediately felt at home at UTCSW.”

Huff noted that his experience in Ukraine was invaluable and forever changed his viewpoint on life. He plans to stay in touch with his Ukrainian friends, that became more like family, for the foreseeable future. “My time in Ukraine had a profound effect on my outlook and has given me a real sense of what it means to help. Helping people who have nothing to give in return is the true definition of volunteering. I am proud to be a social worker and all that it encompasses.”

*To learn more about or to donate to Pekelna Kuhnya, visit and follow them on Instagram @pekelna.kuhnya and Facebook Pekelna Kuhnya. Donations may also be made via PayPal at All proceeds go directly to food and operational costs as Pekelna Kuhnya is 100% volunteer-run by the community.