“Careful when you take those clothes out there.” I said to Newbie, a woman who was restocking for the first time.
“It’s okay.” She said. “I know where they go.” She rushed off.
I followed close behind.
As she entered the woman’s section to put the large, long sleeved shirts onto the rack, fifteen women swarmed her.
I stood next to her and softly told her to keep walking. I’ve been volunteering at the shop for a month; I’ve figured a few things out.
“Hold on.” I said to the shoppers in a kind tone they could understand. “You have to wait until the clothes are on the rack.”
The shoppers grabbed for the shirts.
I kept my voice calm and told them they had to wait. Wait. Wait.
I felt like I was talking to my seven-month-old puppy, although my dog training instructor would remind me that I could only say “wait” one time.
Newbie got the clothes on the rack and the grabbing began.
We backed away.
Sigh. By having two of us out there, we were able to keep everyone safe.
She said, “You tried to warn me…”
We were volunteering in the Free Shop in Krakow, Poland where Ukrainian refugees who are fleeing war can get free clothes and shoes.
There’s no way to mentally prepare new volunteers for how vulnerable and needy this population can be.
I restocked the men’s large pants, and nobody swarmed me. A man shopping nearby thanked me with kind words and a bow of his head for bringing more clothes.
Or that’s what he probably said.
I nodded and smiled. If there weren’t a language barrier I would have told him that it was lovely doing business with him.
I watched as a five-year-old boy rode his bicycle around the Free Shop. Fast. He pedaled at top speed around people, around clothing racks. He smiled as he navigated around clothing bags, shoppers and baby strollers.
He knew how to handle a bike.
One of the new volunteers went up to the boy and said, “No” as he shook his head back and forth to let the boy know he couldn’t ride his bike around the store.
The boy smiled brightly and said, “Yes.”
I laughed. The boy wasn’t being oppositional, he was showing off his English skills.
The boy rode another loop around the shop.
I could make him stop, but thought this was probably the safest place for him to ride. I mean, it’s not safe for those of us walking around, but he wouldn’t last long riding his bike around that busy parking lot.
I wondered who gave him the bike. I thought it was better that he ride it as much as he could before it disappeared. It wasn’t likely that he had a bike lock or a place to store the bike when he was done riding it for the day.
People never think of that when they give a kid a bike.
Ride on, little boy.
He rode circles around another new volunteer, Jeff who arrived from Charlotte, North Carolina (Where my friend Amy lives. Hey Amy!)
The little boy stopped in front of Jeff and stared at him.
Jeff, a man close to retirement age, wore a baseball cap. So did the boy.
Jeff turned his cap backwards and pointed to the boy.
The boy turned his own hat sideways.
Jeff agreed that sideways was a better idea. He turned his hat sideways.
I stood next to Jeff as the boy rode away and told him I was impressed he was able to play with the boy without language.
The boy rode back, pointed to Jeff and said, “Papa,” then rode away again.
I looked at Jeff and told him that the boy just called him Papa.
We watched him ride.
I said, “These kids have no men in their lives right now.”
Jeff got tears in his eyes. He said that he’d been watching the women who were shopping. He said that they were middle or upper middle class. He said that these women never, ever imagined that one day they’d be seeking humanitarian aid in a free shop.
I agreed and said I couldn’t imagine the pain of leaving their husbands, their fathers and their older sons in a war zone.
The boy whizzed by, then circled back. He said a quick sentence, pointed to Jeff and said, “Papa” again.
Jeff waved to the boy. He said that earlier two little girls followed him around the store when he was collecting hangers and made it a game of handing him empty hangers that they found first.
I said that I was glad that the children weren’t afraid to connect with him.
He told me that the reason he came was because he felt so unsettled about the whole war. He looked around for a minute and said that these people look just like him.
He said he talked to a young woman in town who was from the Ukraine. She said she had to go home to see her doctor. She could have gotten free medical help in Poland, but she felt that she needed to see her own doctor to help her manage her rare immune deficiency.
She needed to get new medications, get a copy of her medical history and get her doctor's advice on how to find the right doctor in Krakow to help her deal with her condition. So she drove home.
As she approached her city, enemy rockets flew over her car; she was terrified. The war found her small city in the same hour that she arrived.
While it was still calm, she made it home to see her family and went to her doctor appointment.
Ok. Time out for a minute. Do you realize that the refugees have no medical doctors in Poland who know their medical histories? That girl drove into a war zone so she could go to a doctor’s appointment for an important medical issue.
There are so many levels to being a refugee.
Ok. Back to the story.
After her doctor’s appointment, the fighting in her city intensified. She was able to get her family out before the city was invaded.
She doesn’t know if she will ever go home again.
Ok. Time out again.
She’s not blasting the enemy for ruining their lives. She just wants to go home.
She just wants to go home.
Sometimes Ukrainians want to tell their stories. They always leave us feeling heavier.
If we feel burdened by hearing first-hand accounts of the violence and the injustices taking over the Ukraine, can you imagine the load they are carrying?
I’m planning a week at the Baltic Sea so I can decompress. My Covid-exhaustion remains, which makes me a long hauler. No worries, I’m a master napper.
I’ve had to miss some days at the Free Shop and leave early other days because I’m falling asleep on my feet. This volunteer position requires patience; I don’t feel patient when I’m overtired.
Right now I crave a quiet walk on a windy beach.
I know. How fortunate I am to travel away from this turmoil.
After my break, I’ll return for a few days before I fly home.
In the afternoon I had a new team working the restocking station with me. After getting swarmed a few times, we came up with a plan.
We each armed ourselves with clothes on hangers that were ready to go out to the floor. Two people went out the front entrance; one went straight ahead and one went left. At the same time two of us went out the back and also approached the floor from different directions.
The swarm didn’t know who to follow or where to grab.
It worked. We surprised the swarm.
You know that old adage, divide and conquer?
Thanks for reading.
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