When Russia invaded Ukraine last February, bombing and shooting innocent civilians, many American were moved to help. Some sent donations. Others, like Kingston kindergarten teacher Holly Winter Huppert, wanted to do more, to “take a stand for humanity AND take a stand against war,” as she wrote in her blog.
Holly, who is 57, figured she could combine her love of travel, volunteering and writing with a stint helping Ukrainian refugees who were pouring into neighboring countries.
The majority went to Poland so Holly reached out to ten different humanitarian groups working there. She settled on a Norwegian NGO called A Drop in the Ocean (Drapen I Havet) that, along with two other organizations, offers free clothes, shoes and toys to Ukrainian refugees in Krakow, two hours from the border. This summer, at the Free Shop (Szafa Dobra), they were serving 500 people a day.
Holly planned to volunteer for two weeks. She stayed for seven. She and the other volunteers kept the store in order. Their work varied between sorting clothes by size and gender, hanging them on racks, and distributing toys, and helping to keep the peace. Paradoxically, Holly was taught not to do anyone favors. If she came up with a backpack for one person, several others would demand one too; supplies were limited.
One day, Holly focused on collecting empty hangers and was astonished how satisfying that was. Each empty hanger represented a need that had been met, a refugee who found what they needed: a clean shirt, a new pair of pants or shoes…something to make their disrupted lives just a bit easier.
Shoes were often in demand. Many Ukrainians had fled in their slippers or flip flops. Each refugee was allocated one pair of new shoes. Holly sometimes volunteered to shop for the new clothes (bras, socks and underwear) and shoes the Free Store offered. She was struck by how cheaply these things were sold: $3 for a bra, $15 for shoes of pretty good quality.
She worked eight hours a day and wrote her blog (part diary, part travelogue) before and after her shift at the Free Shop. Although she had resisted asking friends for money, her readers wanted to help. So she set up an account for donations and collected $2300. That was more than enough for all the shoes the store needed to buy for one day. Holly was delighted.
But where stressed-out refugees and their uprooted children gather, tensions can erupt into verbal and physical clashes. The atmosphere could resemble a Black Friday sale, with women fighting to grab clothes they liked before anyone else. Holly speaks no Ukrainian but she found her stern “teacher voice” and sensitivity came in handy.
Holly’s special ed training and experience with kindergarteners proved invaluable in the Kid’s Corner. Although most of the young children who came looking for toys didn’t show it, she understood that they had been traumatized by what they experienced before fleeing their homeland, by leaving their fathers behind, by being ripped away from cousins, grandparents and friends.
She saw a 12-year-old boy, pretending to eat toy plastic food, over and over again. She says traumatized children often act younger than their actual ages. She noticed a young boy’s right eye twitching even though he was smiling — a clear sign of stress — and saw that some young children experienced more-than-usual separation anxiety and howled when their mothers dropped them off.
As Holly wrote, “Trauma during free play doesn’t always look problematic. But if a loud noise went off next to the children, or if they were trying to learn something new, or if they didn’t get their way for even a trivial item or if they couldn’t find their mother in a crowd, we might see them breaking down faster and taking longer to recover… Children who have been traumatized need extra care and understanding.”
As Holly was leaving Krakow, the Free Shop lost its home in an abandoned mall. It is now shuttered but will reopen soon in three new locations: a warehouse, a store for new merchandise and a separate one for used clothing. There’s a constant turnover of volunteers, as some stay for only a day or two.
Perhaps you feel, as Holly did, “I want to make things different, even if a smidgeon different is all I can muster.” If you happen to be passing through Krakow and want to volunteer at the Free Shop or elsewhere, contact Agnes at the Multicultural Center at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And If you’d like to read more about Holly’s adventures in Poland — her volunteer work, her travels, her struggle with COVID — she’ll be publishing her blog as a book soon. It will be for sale on her website — https://www.hollywinter.com along with several others she’s written. Sales will help finance her future summer travels.