Day 2: Introduction

Ukrainians waiting in line at the Free Shop

For my induction into the Free Shop that is run by this organization where I am volunteering, I met with two other volunteers who also started today and the logistics coordinator.

One of the volunteers was a thirty-ish woman from Norway who had worked for the company before. The other volunteer, a man in his sixties, has also offered humanitarian aide around the world. He said he lived in New York.

Wait. Where?


Wait, where?

“In the mountains.”

Wait, where?

“Lake Hill.”

Yeah. After a few minutes we figured out that he lived twenty minutes away from me, and my older brother is his mechanic. Small, small world.

We were taught that refugees might be sullen or angry: don’t take it personally. The refugees can lunge and grab at things: back away. Only put out a few pieces at a time. Call for help if you need it, either with your voice or by calling the emergency phone number that rings on the manager’s phone.

Most refugees are kind and gracious and filled with appreciation. Most take only a few things so there is enough for everyone.

Don’t ask them to talk about their stories or their lives. Don’t say something like, “And how is your mother?”

Seems obvious, but I was glad for the reminder. I’ve never worked with people who are fleeing a war zone. How would I know what to say?

There is an emergency phone message group that we are required to look at in case we get evacuation orders. Nobody said what would happen if we got those orders. I guess if that happens, I’ll improvise.

Logistics said that we were only 2 hours from the border of Ukraine.

Wait, what? I thought we were a 10 hour drive away.

Nope. 2 hours.

The Free Shop opened in March and has served up to 1000 people a day. Most donations are privately funded. Most donations come from Polish people. Currently they are getting about 500 people a day visiting the shop, which is a perfect flow.

I was surprised at how organized the organization is. When they say they’ll call, they call. They remember next steps. Every email is answered. We had a schedule to work each day. It used to be a ten hour day, but the hours have been reduced to 8 hours a day for now.

What a lucky break for me.

I will work five days a week: Three days assisting while the shop is open, one day working at another warehouse, and one day working at our warehouse getting things unpacked.

The warehouse is filled with many hundreds of boxes. Each has been pre-packed. All long sleeved shirts in one small box. Then they are checked in on an app, so they know how many long sleeved shirts are moving through the shop at a time. The boxes have to be unpacked, sorted into bins, then restocked on the floor one bit at a time.

This wasn’t the only organization I looked at joining, but it was the only one who returned phone calls and emails.

The Free Shop looks like an enormous Goodwill. Everything inside is free for the “Beneficiaries.” They are never called customers, consumers or refugees. They are beneficiaries.

Poland has been very kind to the people fleeing Ukraine. Anyone who shows up to the border gets a passport stamp to show they are fleeing war. For one year they have access to free healthcare, free education and a number of other advantages.

Free Shop: No New Shoes Today

Each beneficiary can enter the Free Store once every week. At the shop they show their passport stamps. They are logged in to an app and given a bag to fill with as many used shoes, used clothing, toys, baby items and accessories as they want. They can also take one new pair of shoes and 5 pair of new underwear every week for each passport they have.

While walking past the women’s clothing section during our tour, I was reminded of the frenetic shopping habits of the Filene’s Basement all those years ago where women ran and fought each other for the great deals.

We saw a fight break out as we walked past: what an introduction. Three women wanted the long sleeved shirts a volunteer was putting onto a rack. The beneficiaries grabbed at the hangers and clothes, twisting the volunteer’s fingers in the process.

The head boss, a woman who speaks Ukrainian, stepped in and stopped the fight right away. She just happened to be there.

They stopped restocking the women’s section for the next thirty minutes so people would move on and everyone would stay safe.

If I hadn’t seen it, I probably wouldn’t have understood why Logistics said that we didn’t want any broken fingers or broken hands, so it was important to put out only a few things at a time.


The new volunteers and I started by attending the afternoon meeting: we stood in the back in a giant circle while one woman called out a list of needs: I need two people to work the door.

I need someone to restock women’s clothing.

I didn’t think I ought to work the front door on my first day. And I wasn’t sure I was ready to put the clothes out for the women.

The woman continued her needs list. “I need someone to work the dressing rooms.”

Norway volunteered.

“I need someone to work accessories.” I volunteered.

I got training for the accessories from John, a man visiting from California.

It is the position that does the most walking. He clocked 10 miles a day just walking from the warehouse—a long side room, to the bins to restock.

There are two new things sent by a retail company: backpacks and panda bears. Never tell people that these things are new. Never bring out a large pile of things, or risk getting mobbed by the people waiting. Carry things out in a small box, with another box over the top to hide what you are carrying.

Only let the bins fill to thirty percent full, so people can see most of what is in there.

Never tell anyone what we have in the back room. If someone says, “I need X.” don’t go and get it for them. Others will see and demand the same. You will be sorry if you do it, but it is up to you to decide.

Me? What I really wanted to do was play with the children in the children’s area. I wanted to color with them. I wanted to encourage them to play with the toys. I wanted to help them find joy in their day—not from time with me, but from feeling safe and cared for around me.

I put a few toys into the small box and topped it with a smaller box so you couldn’t see what was inside—as John instructed me to do. I brought it out and dumped it into a bin. Ten people rushed over to see what I had.

I walked back and found five more things and repeated the process. Again. Again. Again.

A mother in her 30s approached me and asked me in English where I was from. I went to pull out the phone to answer her and she said in English that she didn’t need the phone.


I told her I was from New York.

She asked how long I had been there.

I told her today was my first day.

There was a lag in the conversation, so I asked her how long she had been here.

Three months.

And I didn’t know what to say next. I stood there awkwardly looking at her. Hating the war. Hating that she was so far from home. Hating that her home was being destroyed.

She turned from me and continued shopping, an act of social generosity on her part.

Later I told Logistics about my conversation and how I didn’t know what to say.

He said, “Saying nothing is never the wrong answer. You got it right. You treated her like a person.”

I nodded.

A young girl approached me and asked something in a quiet voice. I pulled out my phone and turned on the translation program. I didn’t see any other volunteers using the program. “You can tell me something and my phone will change the words so I can understand them. You can talk after the noise.” My phone repeated the words in Ukrainian.

She nodded and spoke so softly that I didn’t think the phone would pick up what she wanted, but it did.

“Do you have any toys for a big girl like me who is 9 years old?”

We didn’t have anything in the shop for tweens or teens. Very little clothing. Very little shoes. No toys or games. And we had even less for boys.

I spoke into the phone. “I can help you find a good toy.”

She nodded, but turned her nose up to the teddy bears and penguins and dolls.

Her little sister collected every small toy she could find while her grandmother sat nearby and laughed at her for wanting everything she saw. Her brother sat patiently waiting for the others to finish shopping.

The little sister picked up a stuffed unicorn and a stuffed broccoli. She held up the broccoli to feed to the unicorn. “Oh, broccoli.” She said in Ukrainian words that I understood. “Yum. Yum. Yum.”

This proves that a love of broccoli is universal. Although in the end the girl brought home the unicorn and left the broccoli.

I brought out box after box of stuffed animals, and finally the 9-year-old girl chose a bunny carrying a large, orange carrot. She was excited to find a toy.

Her brother continued his patient sit. I decided to slip him a backpack.

I put five things into the box, then hid the backpack on the side of the box. I motioned the boy to come over and could swear that nobody was watching. He saw the backpack, put it on right away with the biggest smile.

Then he asked to speak into my phone. “My sister needs one of these too. Please?”

I had to lie and tell him there were no more.

He nodded, solemnly and went back to his seat where he studied every pocket in the backpack.

A woman came over and pointed to my phone. “I have a son too. Please. He needs something good.”

I shook my head and told her that there weren’t any more and that I was so sorry.

Another woman came over and motioned to my phone then demanded, “Three bags for my children.”

Sorry, all gone.

I hated being the one to decide who got something good. So I took a new panda and buried it in a bin under other stuffed toys. A woman found it a few minutes, rubbed it against her face, then dropped it back in the bin.

When I looked back a few minutes later, the panda was gone.





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