Day 45: Last Day
A Ukrainian woman shopping in the free shop handed me a hanger.
“Thank you so much.” I said as I bowed my head just a little and added the hanger to the stack I was collecting.
I stopped trying to learn Ukrainian to talk to the beneficiaries at the shop. Talking with me is an English lesson. I am all smiles no matter what language the replies come in.
The woman nodded her head and smiled. “Wel-comb.”
I smiled and nodded fast then moved on to the next clothing rack.
Someone put a woman’s small dress on the wrong rack and one pair of boy’s pants were on the floor. I collected three empty hangers, picked up the dress and placed the cute pair of pants at the end of the rack, facing out.
Someone is going to love these pants with little dinosaurs all over them.
I walked over to the woman’s section to put the dress away and when I returned to the boys’ rack, the dinosaur pants were gone; only the hanger remained.
I smiled. Somewhere in Krakow, there will be a five-year-old Ukrainian boy who is going to get his new favorite pair of pants.
I’d been volunteering for about seven weeks at the Szafa Dobra, a free shop for Ukrainian refugees fleeing war. There are many different jobs at the shop that I have worked over long shifts, but I chose organizing the kids’ clothing racks for my final day at the shop.
I walked around collecting hangers while inwardly cheering. Empty hangers are proof that people are finding the clothes they need.
Each hanger was a celebration of the work that A Drop in the Ocean and other organizations do to supply this shop and support it with volunteers.
This free shop is a resounding success.
About 500 people come every day and take home about 5,000 things. This is all done with dignity. Volunteers check passports at the door: if their paperwork includes a stamp that they are fleeing war, then the refugees are invited to come inside.
One hundred refugees can fit inside the store at a time; the rest must wait outside on line.
There are volunteers that work the doors, sort clothes in the warehouse, keep the shop organized and restock goods.
It is a process that works. Beneficiaries can get the supplies that they need and volunteers get to help.
I hung up a pair of girl’s pants and positioned them at the end of the rack, facing out. These were lime green and had little unicorns on the pockets.
A girl is going to love these.
An advantage to working the kids’ clothing section is that I am in the center of the store, so can help out other areas where there are newer volunteers with questions.
A new woman worked in the used shoe department. I reminded her to only bring out two pairs of shoes and to put them on the shelf directly, rather then passing them out in the store.
Her eyes flew open wide. “Thank you for telling me. I am an easy target. They ask me so nicely.”
I told her I knew how hard it could be.
I delivered hangers back to the restock area when one of the volunteers asked me to walk in front of him to put out some clothes.
“What do you want, a fast walk or a slow walk?” I asked.
This man who is an army veteran with tattoos running up both arms, wanted a slow walk.
I love that he understands how to work in the store with people who might forget their manners.
We headed to the men’s medium sized t-shirts. There was a group of women who tried to grab the shirts from his hands.
“No.” he said, firmly but kindly. He was able to hang the shirts and back away before they grabbed at what they wanted.
As we walked away he raised both arms in victory and said, “Success!”
I told him that there were two new volunteers from the UK who thought that there wasn’t an issue with beneficiaries grabbing at items.
He laughed so hard he bent over, then stopped laughing and straightened up. He said that he thought the same thing when he arrived.
We laughed together.
They will learn. They will learn.
The noise at the Kids’ Corner got louder. I walked over and looked around. Most children were playing quietly while the two volunteers played Legos with a group of kids.
But there was this one four-year-old boy who wore a gray shirt.
He threw a block at a boy who was building a racetrack. He grabbed a yellow car from a little boy, then taunted him with it by holding it just out of reach. Then he dropped the car and swiped his arm across the art table, throwing all of the art supplies onto the floor.
I walked over to him as he was clobbering another boy with a stuffed animal.
The boy looked at me in surprise.
“You can not hurt children here.”
I’ve learned that the tone of my voice matters when talking to children who don’t speak my language.
He stood for a moment, then buzzed over to the stuffed animals and began throwing them at the girls in the kitchen area.
I put my body in front of the stuffed animals. “No way. You can not hurt children here.”
The beneficiaries sitting on the couch next to the dressing rooms watched the action.
This is one of those problems that can look different to different cultures.
In my culture we see correcting children and setting boundaries as a necessary part of their upbringing.
Not all people feel this way.
I put my hand out and the boy happily held my hand, then tried to pull me off balance.
I sat on the floor next to the blocks and patted the floor next to me for him to sit.”
I built a block tower.
He knocked it down.
I cheered and built another one.
He knocked it down.
He was still being destructive, but I was setting the parameters: I was winning at this game.
He built a tower. I knocked it down.
We both laughed.
After a few minutes he was up again, running around the play area.
We have a volunteer who is a magician. He brought out his literal book of tricks.
The boy didn’t care.
The magician brought out his magic metal rings and connected them and pulled them apart.
Other children gathered around, wide eyed.
The little boy watched.
“This little boy in the gray is the one you need to watch out for.” I said to the magician.
“He might be too young…”
But the boy sat down and watched.
The magician wins again.
I backed away and returned to my area and collected hangers from the 10-year-old girls’ dress section.
A disheveled woman and her young daughter stared at the shoe department where beneficiaries can get one pair of new shoes.
There were no additional tickets. We were almost out of shoes.
The woman’s shirt had spots of grease down the front of it. Her twelve-year-old daughter had streaks of mud on her pants and needed to brush her hair. They both needed a shower.
The woman’s shoes were a pair of sneakers that were too small—her daughter’s shoes? Her bare feet crushed the back of the shoes, and her ankle touched the floor.
That had to be uncomfortable.
I found one of the coordinators and told her these people needed new shoes. I detached myself from the outcome: maybe there would be shoes for them, maybe there wouldn’t be shoes for them. Not everyone can be helped today.
We all do our best. That’s all we can do.
As the coordinator approached the beneficiaries, she looked at their feet. She talked to them for a while, then gave them each a ticket for new shoes.
They had just arrived from the eastern part of Ukraine. It took them a long time to get here.
I will carry that image of her bare foot sticking out the back of that small shoe for a long time.
There were about thirty people on the line to get shoes. I scanned the shoes they were wearing and noticed that one woman had on a pair of black shoes with red around the top. Angelique and I bought shoes like those with money I got from donations a few weeks ago.
The woman didn’t have a ticket; she was helping other people figure out the system.
I left the area with tears in my eyes, and as I write this now the tears are back. There are so many basic things that people need and knowing that they can get essentials today—shoes they will wear every single day-- makes my tears flow with relief.
I took a break and let the tears flow while I sipped water in the back room and looked at the trees outside.
My tears weren’t tears of sadness because today is my last day. There are volunteers who will carry on the work. I don’t think that I am the only one who can help make things better: there are many volunteers who can collect hangers or sort socks or check passports.
My tears are a relief that people can get the things they need.
My tears turned to rage, quickly, when I heard that there are two people wearing yellow vests, like ours, who are approaching women on the line outside the shop and offering them free apartments.
Human traffickers, go away.
Think about how vulnerable this woman and her daughter are. They need … everything.
Human traffickers, may you rot in Hell. Forever.
Getting to Krakow is the first step in fleeing war. There is so much weighing on these people.
How do you hold your head up high when you were a middle class family that had everything, but now you are a single mother who visits a Free Shop for humanitarian aid in a different country so you and your children can get underwear?
How do you shuffle through lines without screaming out in frustration that you can’t wait another minute?
How do you handle your pregnancy, as a sixteen-year-old, that came from being raped by the enemy who then left her for dead?
How do you wake each day when everything has gone wrong except that you and your children are in a safe place and so you bathe yourself and your children and dress all of you in clean clothes so you can take your big outing of the day: go to the free shop to get clothes?
How do you stay positive when your country, your community, your neighborhood, your house, everything you own, your husband and father and all of the men in your extended family are being crushed under the weight of war?
How do you deal with a foreign power that doesn’t just invade, but tortures civilians and their children along the way?
There are many injustices in the world, and we are all weakened by hearing about them on the news and reading reports of cruelty.
The one thing that has strengthened me is having the time and the resources to show up here in Krakow to help. I have learned that by doing my one small task each day, the whole operation worked better.
This is where my relief comes from: even the smallest bit of help makes a difference.
As I volunteered I kept seeing boxes with a return address from a man named, Boyd. The boxes were from Minnesota and each box listed the items that were inside the box.
Who would pay to ship supplies from so far away? I once shipped a shoebox of supplies to Europe and it cost me $50. These are large boxes.