My day started with a walk of shame. I walked into the Free Shop two hours late. Beneficiaries were lined up outside and shopping inside. Volunteers were hard at work.
There were looks of surprise at the front door. Holly’s late? Volunteers greeted me as I walked through the store.
I found Logistics, one of the top three people in charge, as he was moving heavy boxes. He said I could work in the warehouse today.
“Of course.” I said. “Anything at all.” Being late meant that I lost my chance to work in the Kid’s Corner.
When I woke at 6:00 AM this morning and groggily looked at my phone, I decided that the phone was set for New York time and that I should go back to sleep. So I did. I woke again at 10:00 AM and thought the same thing and almost went back to sleep again.
But something made me stop. Pause. Ten o’clock. Wait, this is Poland time, isn’t it? I’m so late that they may have already called the chain of worry: If someone doesn’t show up they call in this order: friends, hotel, police, embassy.
Logistics had texted to check up on me. I was sleeping and didn’t return his text.
I texted back that I was on my way. Soon. Soon.
He wrote back right away that this was no problem.
My head felt heavy, as if I’d been up all night drinking. No. I never drink alcohol. Must be jet lag.
Oh, jet lag.
Logistics set me up in the warehouse. He carefully explained every step I needed to take and introduced me to the two other women who were part of my sorting team. They were friends who traveled here from Washington state.
My job was to unpack donations and sort them. Clothes that were in perfect shape were divided into one of twenty bins by clothing type. I set up at the end of a long table and got to work.
I’ve always loved thrift store shopping, but this was shopping in reverse. I was choosing which articles of clothing would be fit to donate to people fleeing war. All good quality, clean and unstained clothes were considered.
Another team took the sorted clothes, checked them again, sized them, placed them into boxes, sealed them, labeled them and entered them into a computer program. “34 Long Sleeved Shirts: Men.” Then these boxes sat in another area of the warehouse.
The team in charge of restocking the store would choose a box based on need on the floor—“We need men’s summer coats” hang the coats on hangers and place them on racks in the correct department in the store.
Beneficiaries would take the clothing home for free.
I grabbed a very full garbage bag from the new donations pile, wrestled it to my table and very carefully untied the bag. Even this garbage bag would be gifted to a beneficiary who needed a bag to carry new clothes home.
I held up a fashionable blouse. Colorful. Well made. Interesting cut. Expensive. European designer I never heard of. I would buy this shirt If I saw it in a thrift store.
“Hey, look at this.” I said to my team.
They came and inspected the shirt. “It’s fine.” The tall woman said. “Put it in women’s long sleeved shirt bin.”
Ok. Maybe pointing out that a shirt was well made wasn’t part of my team’s job description.
I kept an ongoing mental count of clothes I would buy if I saw them in a thrift store.
I wondered about the lives of some of the people who donated clothes. One family of four—as discerned by the clothing in the bag: father, mother, son, daughter—had beautiful, trendy clothing that they donated in a large designer bag. Each piece was folded what may have been a professional clothing folder, if there were such a thing: perfect corners, all edges aligned. The clothes were clean with no stains or worn spots
Maybe these people were nudists and never wore their clothes?
At around 12:30 Logistics started his rounds; he asked people if they were happy in their morning assignment, or if they wanted a change. Some people said they would do whatever he needed. Some said they needed a new assignment. He didn’t ask me.
I was sure I would finish the day in the warehouse, but he came back to me with a smile on his face. “Your wish is granted. You can run the “Kids’ Corner. Finish up here. Go there in five minutes.”
I thanked him and returned his smile.
Later Norway, a young woman who is a volunteer from Norway, told me that during job assignments this morning, nobody wanted to work in the Kid’s Corner. She said it almost became a fight. She couldn’t believe I wasn’t there.
I was placed with a teen girl from Washington DC who was in Krakow volunteering with her father. They weren’t working for my same organization, but through a German company that permitted children to volunteer.
Kid’s Corner is place where children can play in one corner of the shop. There are colorful rugs on the floor and bins along the sides. There are giant puzzles and many boxes of Duplo blocks.
I greeted Teen and told her I was going to do some organizing. I got a bag for garbage and dumped all of the puzzles, broken toys and toys with missing pieces into it. In a small box I placed random toys that were in good shape, but not needed in the corner.
On my way to dispose of the box of random toys, beneficiaries swarmed me to see what I had. One woman reached in and grabbed a small, plastic train.
I nodded my head yes. Yes, you can have it.
She grabbed for a small, naked doll.
I handed her the box and said in English. “Here. Take it all.”
She pressed the box to her chest and the others backed away. We were both satisfied: she got an assortment of toys and I didn’t have to sort those toys. Win/win.
I dug around in the warehouse’s toy section and found some plastic food. Just what we needed. I returned to the corner and handed the food to a boy manning one of the wooden kitchen sets. He handed it back to me and instructed me in Ukrainian to do something.
I guessed that he wanted me to hand him one piece at a time so he could put it in its proper place. I handed him one thing at a time, and he took great care in placing them in the right part of the kitchen—top shelf. Bottom shelf. Counter. Under the sink. Each vegetable was made to stand on a shelf. Each plate stacked neatly next to the little cups.
There was another wooden kitchen set in the corner, so I returned to the back and dug around and found more plastic food and plates and little cups. A girl in a red dress grabbed as many as she could, dumped them all into a sink and stood guard over her stash.
When the little boy in the kitchen next door turned his back, the girl in the red dress swiped one of his tiny plastic bottles.
The boy turned fast and grabbed at her. She pulled the bottle away.
Yeah. That’s the problem. I can’t help them figure this out if I don’t speak their language. I was ten seconds away from having two children melting down.
I spoke quietly the same words I would use with my students. In English, a language they could not understand. I said, “These toys are mine. I am sharing them with you. And so you can not take them from each other.” I pointed to the girl and then to her kitchen. “You have to play with your toys.” I pointed to the boy and then his kitchen, “You have to play with your toys.”
Both children sighed in resignation. The girl handed the bottle back to the boy and the two backed into their own kitchens.
It was one of those teaching miracles that you can’t believe actually worked. I mean, could tone of voice be the same no matter the language?
No matter what we do here, the war is close by.
One boy spent his time arranging Duplo blocks into the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Another spent time building guns out of blocks and hiding behind the giant pink panda and shooting at enemies. One girl turned over her coloring page and drew war pictures with guns and knives where there were many, many more good guys holding blue and gold flags.
The age of children who can play here start at 4. I teach children this age and know that they like to knock things over, and play with teeny tiny things. They also like to look at the pictures in books and play with stuffed animals.
I rearranged the toys. One bin of teeny tiny toys. One bin of picture books—that are probably in Polish. And then I got to work on the blocks.
I pulled out the block bin and started building a tower. I boy who may have been five-years-old came and knocked it down. I laughed and clapped my hands. Then I started rebuilding. He knocked it down again. I laughed harder.
I set up one block on the floor to make a tower, and motioned for the boy to put the next block on. He did. We each took a turn until the tower fell.
We both laughed.
Then he waved me away. He wanted to build by himself.
“Got you to play!” I said to myself as I left him alone.
Every time a child put together the enormous “Frozen” floor puzzle, I took it apart and restacked it along the edge of the carpet. And within minutes another child would come along to put that same puzzle together again.
That’s the same reason I kept cleaning up the area. Children love to pull toys out of bins. At home my students would clean up everything they touched before they got another game. Here the joy of being surrounded by so many toys was so great, the kids moved from toy to toy without cleaning up.
That’s okay. I got you this time. You play.
The boy in the kitchen played with that food set-up for over an hour. When his mother came, she said something. I pulled out the translation program on my phone. She said that the boy’s father was a chef and worked in a kitchen.
I told her “Like father, like son.” She smiled a slow smile, then started to cry.
Which made tear up. Gosh, darn it. I did it again. Never talk about family. Never talk about family.
The woman didn’t notice my embarrassment. She picked up my phone and asked if her son could play a little longer since he was having such a good time.
Yes. Yes, he can.
And I would have let him stay all day, but one of the store coordinators noticed that he had been in my area too long. It was time for them to leave so other children could have a turn.
The boy said goodbye and said a few sentences while he pointed to his kitchen. He might have asked me to protect his kitchen save the food for him to use when he returned next week.
I answered him with a calm voice in English: “I’ll do my best.”
Thanks for reading.
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Holly Winter Huppert hollywinter.com Kington, NY
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