Day 31: Buying Shoes for Ukrainian Refugees fleeing War

“Wait. What sizes do we need again for sandals?” Angelique asked.

I told her we mostly needed sizes 39, 40 and 41. Then we could get some sizes 36 and 38.

We were in Decathlon, a sports store close to the free shop where I have been volunteering for the past month in Krakow, Poland. The Szafa Dobra supports Ukrainian refugees who are fleeing war in their homeland. We give out free clothes, shoes and accessories.

We needed new shoes. I started a fundraiser, and friends from around the world stepped up. We had $2000 dollars to buy sports shoes, sandals and if there was any money left, we would buy underwear, socks and bras.

Angelique figured out the tags first. She called out, “39. 39. 39. 39.” like a mixed up Beatles song as she placed sandals into the enormous shopping carts we rolled here from our shop.

I joined in. “40. 40. 41. 34.” Sandals take up a lot of room in the cart. I thought Giovanni, our logistics coordinator, was wrong when he suggested we bring both shopping carts.

He’s been doing this a along time. He knows.

Angelique asked if we needed size 34.

No. We don’t. I returned them to the shelf.

40. 40. 41. 40. 41. 41. 41. There was no orderly way to organize the shoes in the shopping cart.

Angelique finds sport shoes in the sizes we need.

We searched one shelf at a time to be sure we were only choosing sandals that cost 69 zlotys so our math worked.

There were $2,000 in donations. If we bought shoes for 69 zlotys, then we could buy 120 pair of shoes today (so that we had more than enough to cover the taxes), then could return on Tuesday when they had time to restock the store to spend the rest.

I reached up to the very top shelves and moved a sign away from the shoes. Bingo. 39. 40. 40. 41. 40.

Angelique bent down low to find more shoes at the very back of the shelves. 39. 41. 41. 38. 38. 41.

I had wanted to shop on Thursday, but the coordinators asked me to wait. They had just found out that a company was sending us many pallets of shoes.

We really needed shoes. This was an unbelievable gift.

The coordinators knew from experience that the shipment could be delayed—in which case I would need to buy every size. If the pallets arrived on time, they might not include every size.

That seemed unlikely. Why would a company send a gift of shoes and only include a few sizes?

It was best for us to wait and see what sizes were still needed after the shipment.

I didn’t want to wait. I thought it was crazy to wait. We had money now. Let’s….but I trusted that the coordinators knew the best way to spend this money. They’ve been doing this for years, in other countries that offer services to refugees.

Unpacking. Counting. Preparing. Sorting by size. with Federico in the background.

When Angelique and I arrived at the Free Shop this morning, we found out that the shipment arrived. We sat in the back corner of the shop and helped unpack, sort and count the shoes that were sent in that large shipment.

We had 70 pair of size 38, 50 pair of size 42 and 30 pair of size 44. The size 42 and size 44 shoes were a slim fit.

Maybe teenagers could wear them?

Micha made us a list of sizes we still needed. Giovanni sent a photo of the shoes we could afford at Decathlon, so we knew what to look for.

We each pushed an old shopping cart to the store.

Neither one of us knew the lay of the store. We stopped at the customer service counter as Giovanni suggested and explained that we were there to buy a lot of shoes.

“Okay.” Said a young clerk who wore glasses. “When you are ready, you can go to the register over there and we will help you.”

I was glad to know that they would help us check out. When Teresa and I bought 90 bras a few weeks ago, that store made us use the self-checkout line. We had problems scanning tags; it took over an hour to check out and pay.

No thanks.

We pushed the carts around the enormous store and around again searching for the shoe section.

Angelique found it first.

We started filling the cart with sandals. Pair after pair.

A woman walked up to me and said something in Polish.

“Sorry.” I said. “I don’t work here.”

She stared at me.

“English?” I said.

She walked away. I hope she didn’t go online and leave a comment that the employees at this store don’t speak Polish.

We moved our heavy carts to the sport shoe section. For these shoes we also needed sizes 39, 40 and 41, and then had room for some more size 36 and size 37.

We started filling a cart with the sizes we needed. Sport shoes are bigger than you think and the carts filled fast. We tried to rearrange them so we could to get more shoes inside the cart.

Placing my vest over the cart to stop people from taking them out.

We had to place our yellow volunteer vests over the carts so people didn’t pick through them thinking that they were on sale.

Yes, it happened.

If someone really needed sandals in a particular size, we would have given some up. But something about the two of us wearing our yellow vests made the shoppers in the store think that we worked there.

A man pointed to his 5-year-old daughter and said something in Polish.

“English?” I said.

He stared at me.

“Sorry. I don’t work here.”

He exhaled loudly and walked away.

We searched the shelves and bought every pair of shoes and sandals in our price range in the sizes that we needed.

If we messed up and bought too many shoes, I would have to pay for anything over the donation level. This motivated me to count slowly and carefully.

We shuffled shoes from one cart to the other and counted out loud.

100 pair of shoes.

Even if there were more shoes in the store, we couldn’t have fit even one more pair into our carts.

We worked our way to the front of the store and waved several people who lined up after us get in front of our overloaded carts so they wouldn’t have to wait for us to check out.

That same friendly clerk from the front desk was working the register when we got there.

“I’m ready.” He smiled.

I was grateful for his smile. In Poland people don’t always smile, and we were warned that not all employees of that store like it when we buy large quantities.

It slows the line.

By the way, the store does give us a discount. It’s a 1% discount. This means that if we buy 100 shoes, we will get one more pair of shoes for free.

Maybe this level of discount is why we’ve never heard of this store in the States.

No, they will not order in the shoes we need. No, they will not deliver the shoes to us.

We get what’s on the shelf. No special treatment.

They don’t have internet shopping in Poland in the same way that we do at home, which most people prefer.

With the young clerk’s help, we became a three person team. He rang up the shoes. I placed them into small baskets. Angelique moved them into our carts once the carts were emptied.

The clerk didn’t have to ring in the shoes individually. He dropped one pair of shoes at a time into a space next to the register.

“I don’t understand.” I said, speaking with simple words. “You don’t tell the computer what we buy?”

“In our store it the automatic system. Just going near computer and it knows you buying.”

No searching for bar codes. No waiting for the register to register the barcodes. No double charging. No missing a charge.

What a perfect check-out experience.

The clerk gave me permission to take a video of him and as many photos as I wanted.

I paid for the purchase then watched the receipt printing out. I turned on the video mode on my camera just when the clerk said, “This is probably are the longest bill I ever seen.”

I laughed at the thought of our purchase making a store record.

Pushing the carts back to the Free Shop was difficult. They were heavy. The wheels didn’t want to roll along the brick sidewalk. The wheels didn’t like the drain grills along the sidewalks.

A group of refugees waked by and one woman recognized our yellow vests and stuck her hands into my cart in that old, “What’s yours is mine” attitude.

“No.” I said.

What if they turned on us. What if they swarmed us? Its not that people wanted new shoes, people needed shoes.

Need can make you hungry after a while.

I kept pushing the cart after Angelique as fast as I could. They didn’t chase us.


I had asked Micha how we were supposed to get the carts into the store.

“Just go to the ramp.”

“But the ramp doesn’t go down to the ground.” I said.

Micha put her hand on my shoulder. “I don’t know how they do it, but the carts always make it back into the store. Don’t worry. You will have help.”

The man working the ramp told us in broken English to bring the cart to the stairs. “I will bring up.” He said.

“No way.” I said. “How can you bring them up the stairs?”

Was there a lift that I hadn’t noticed before?

This was a former grocery store in an abandoned mall. The ramp was at the height of a tractor trailer that would back in and unload.

We were not delivering via tractor trailer.

We brought the carts where he said. I thought he was going to tip the cart back so the front hovered in the air, like you would do with a wheelchair, and slowly roll it up the stairs one step at a time.

But that’s not what he did.

He grabbed the cart in a giant bear hug and lifted it off the ground. He set the cart down, readjusted his hold and lifted again. He placed the cart against his hip and jimmied it up the first step.

I gasped and tried to turn on my camera, but it was impossible.

Sometimes you see something that you didn’t know was possible. Like a video of a python eating a person or a movie of a tornado only taking out one tree in its path.

I didn’t know you could put your arms out to the side, wrap them around the sides of a shopping cart and lift that heavy cart off the ground.

Angelique offered to help. He declined.

The two of us stood at the bottom of the stairs with our mouths open wide.

The man adjusted his grip, then stepped up onto the first step without moaning or groaning over the weight. We watched as he stepped up to the second step. On the third step, he stumbled.

I stopped breathing. Angelique gasped. I thought I might pass out from his effort.

He’s going to fall. He’s going to die.

He regained his balance and carried the cart up one more step. Then another. Then another. And by moving one step at a time, he made it to the top, set the cart down gently and rolled it forward as if the contents were fragile.

He wasn’t breathing heavily.

I was out of breath and sweating.

A man carried a shopping cart up a flight of stairs.

He carried a shopping cart up a flight of stairs by himself.

He carried a shopping cart up a flight of stairs by himself and I am more out of breath from watching than he is from the effort.

He placed the other cart into position, spread his arms around the sides and lifted it up. This cart was far heavier than the first one.

He put the cart down, moved his hands and lifted again.

Angelica offered to help him carry the cart up. She said, "Are you sure? I don't want you to hurt yourself."

He declined.

This cart was more difficult to manage. He pushed his hip into the weight of it and lifted it up one step. Another step.

I started a video.

By the third step Angelique moved in and helped him carry it the rest of the way.

My only help was in taking a video = not helpful.

We stood at the top of the stairs and stared at this strong man for a moment. How do you thank a man who just pushed himself past a human’s limit so that we wouldn’t be inconvenienced?

We thanked him.

He shrugged and said of course.


We pushed the carts through the Free Shop to the staging area for shoes and left them there for a few minutes while we took a water/lunch/bathroom break.

Giovanni cutting off tags from sandals.

When we returned, Giovanni had already sized the sandals, cut off most of the tags and counted them.

Marta came in and asked if we had any size 36 ready to go out. There was a demand.

“Give me one minute.” We said as Angelique and I cut off tags and labels.

Marta collecting specific sizes of sandals for the shop.

Marta collected various sizes of sandals, and the size 36s and brought them to the “New Shoe” section where volunteers Natasha and Federico were registering people and helping them select shoes to try on.

All sizes of shoes were now available.

I had a big smile on my face. Buying these shoes was a group effort and now one hundred people would have new shoes.

When we band together, we do more good.

I am filled with gratitude for the people who helped and for the refugees who were open to receiving help.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Sorting sport shoes by size.

Our morning shoe prep team volunteers: Holly (USA) , Angelique (South Africa), Federico (Buenos Aires) and Natasha.(Ukraine).

Marta setting up the new shoe area in the shop.

An automatic notice that I made a large purchase in another country.
The credit card double checking that this was my charge, after the fact.

The daily protest against the war marched past my window. In the rain.





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