Two teenagers approached the clothing in the teen girl section of the Szafa Dobra, a free shop in Krakow, Poland where I have been volunteering to help Ukrainian refugees fleeing war.
The girls dressed fashionably in pretty summer dresses that fit their small bodies and wore shoes that also fit.
They talked fast and pointed out various sections of the store.
The light haired girl opened a large bag and placed it on the floor in front of her. She pulled a skirt off the hanger and dropped it in the bag without looking at it or holding it up in front of her to see if it was the right size.
In a hurry? I watched as she took four more dresses off hangers as fast as she could and dropped them into the same bag.
It’s like she was on a timer and had to fill the bag as fast as she could.
The dark hair girl opened her own bag and began dropping in long sleeved shirts.
The girls laughed and moved together for a high 5 then got back to work.
The girl with the dark hair walked over to me and asked me something.
“Sorry. I only speak English.”
She nodded slowly. “English. Ok. Is there more the clothes I can looking for?”
I told her the same answer we say to all questions, “No. Sorry. This is all we have.”
If the beneficiaries knew how many boxes we had waiting in the warehouse, they would never go home.
Both girls dropped piles of clothes into their bags without consideration for what they were taking.
I went up to the dark haired girl and said, “Do you want to try these clothes on in the dressing room?”
She said no and continued filling her bag.
I went to find Micha and told her that it looked like I had two young girls who wanted to start a small business.
She was busy helping the shoe department open. We were out of shoes until Matt, one of our volunteers, got some donations from friends and family. Before the shop opened this morning, he went shopping for shoes.
Now we had enough shoes to open registration so we could give away shoes all day today to people who had never received shoes from us before.
The shoe department could open. A win for all of us.
Micha looked over at the girls and said that maybe they would carry the clothes to the dressing room to try them on.
I went to the racks they raided and pulled the empty hangers and walked them back to the restocking area. They were filling their second bag when I returned to Micha.
She let me know that she alerted a different coordinator who was working the floor.
I found him and let him know that they girls were fast at work.
“Don’t worry.” He said. “We will be ready for them.”
I cleaned behind the girls. The clothes they didn’t want were either left on the rack or thrown on the floor. I picked them up, shook them out and rehung them. I collected the hangers they left behind and returned them to the restocking area.
They each filled their bags and started on new bags. They dragged the bags to each section so they could protect their assets.
The front coordinator walked past them several times to get a good look at what they were doing. He nodded to me, then returned to the front.
I bent under a rack of clothes and got a photo of the light haired girl in the polka dot dress as she dropped a pile of clothes into bag number four.
Four bags of clothes?
How would the coordinators stop the girls from taking clothes that they had no intention of wearing?
That’s the thing to remember. During an emergency there will be people who show up to help. There will be people who need help. And there will be people who want to take advantage of the chaos and make a personal profit.
Some people wanted to help others. Some people want to help themselves.
The girls moved on to the boy section and cleaned out most of the clothes for boys who were 8 – 10 years old.
They left a low-quality sweater on the rack and I wanted to insist that they take it, too.
No, really. This cheap sweater. It suits you. Please take it.
I continued collecting the hangers they left behind and watched them gutting our carefully organized supplies.
I turned away from them so I could cool down. I trusted that the coordinators knew how to handle this with dignity, but I wanted to send those girls—away.
I changed my focus to give myself a little break.
I watched as one family dug through the infant clothing bin; we have a lot of infant clothes in the warehouse waiting to go out. I watched as a mother picked a tiny hat out of the bin and put it on her four-year-old daughter’s doll.
They laughed together as they looked at how cute the doll looked in the hat.
The girl said something to her mother and her voice went up, as if she were asking a question.
Her mother said no and put the hat back in the bin.
The teenagers could fill their bags with no remorse for taking supplies from others, but this mother wouldn’t take something frivolous that another person might need.
The girl didn’t complain or whine. She didn’t expect something as valuable as a hat for her doll.
We have so many of these inexpensive, tiny hats that someone donated. Hundreds of them.
I took the pink hat out of the bin and handed it to the mother.
She put the hat on the doll.
I smiled and nodded my head in a “Yes” fashion.
The little girl asked her mother a question.
This time her mother said yes.
The little girl hugged her doll tight to her chest and then set the doll down so she could adjust the hat just right.
I would have suggested the girl find some clothes for her doll, too, but we are reminded every day that we are not there to offer favors to anyone.
We are schooled to never offer special treatment.
As the family walked away I worried that every Ukrainian girl would find me and demand a hat. Mothers, aunties and grandmothers would insist they needed tiny hats, too for their children, for their dolls, for their dogs. They would tell me that I helped that girl and now I must help them, too.
Even though it’s a free shop, we have to stay out of the selection process. We are not offering favors or special treatment, only a place for people to get what they need.
I am but an observer watching the process, and offering my translation program if someone needs help.
It can be tough to help others without worrying that someone else will feel offended by a kind gesture.
I was glad I gave the girl a hat for her doll, but I wouldn’t do it again.
I returned to collecting hangers and saw the dark hair girl call someone on the phone. By her hand gestures it seemed like she was asking someone for help.
I found the coordinator up front and let him know that I thought they called someone to help them.
The girls moved on to the extra-large women’s section—the toughest section to get donations for—and dropped large pants and then a dozen large dresses into their bags.
I was grinding my teeth. Other beneficiaries were shopping and there was less stock out since the girls had taken so much. Some of these beneficiaries came from far away.
An older woman with a silver braid down her back showed up. Was she already in the shop? The girls showed her the bags. The woman pointed out sections they hadn’t depleted yet.
I let the coordinator know that there was an adult woman helping them now.
He walked by and got a good look at the woman, then returned to the front.
He told me later that when they arrived at the checkout counter, he told them that this is a shop for humanitarian aid, not “Grab what you can.”
He called Micha who came to the checkout area told them that they could each take 20 things, and insisted—really insisted that they all go—insisted again—that wanted to be sure their clothes fit so they would want to go to the dressing rooms to try them on.
The three of them lugged the four overflowing bags to the dressing rooms.
Out of the four bags of clothes that they collected, they left three of the bags behind.
After they left the restock team continued to work double time to keep the store filled.
My job today was to organize the children’s clothing sections. That’s all. All day.
I would start at one end of the shop with the clothes for 2-5-year-old boys and work my way around the entire area that spanned two rows from one end of the shop to the other.
I collected empty hangers, rehung clothes that had fallen and collected clothes that had been placed in the wrong section and hung them in the right place.
Keeping this shop organized is a full time job. Each week beneficiaries take home about fifteen thousand things.
That’s a lot of restocking.
Finding an empty hanger was a conformation that our efforts were working. Someone found something needed.
Each empty hanger gave me a reason to smile. Now the people need one thing less.
We have reduced need by the smallest amount.
That’s why I volunteer here.
Thanks for reading.
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