Local writer helps Ukrainian refugees in Poland

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Holly Winter Huppert (Photos by Dion Ogust)

When Russia invaded Ukraine last February, bombing and shooting innocent civilians, many Americans were displaced to help. Some sent donations. Others, like Kingston kindergarten teacher Holly Winter Huppert, wanted to do more, to “stand up for humanity AND take a stand against war,” as she wrote in her blog.

Holly, who is 57, thought 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 contacted ten different humanitarian groups working there. She opted for a Norwegian NGO called A Drop in the Ocean (Drapen I Havet) which, along with two other organisations, provides 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 hours. She and the other volunteers kept the store in order. Their work ranged from sorting clothes by size and gender, hanging them on racks, distributing toys and helping to keep the peace. Paradoxically, Holly learned to do no one a favour. If she offered a backpack for one person, several others would demand one too; supplies were limited.

One day Holly focused on collecting empty hangers and was amazed at how satisfying it was. Each empty hanger represented a need fulfilled, a refugee finding what they needed: a clean shirt, new pants or shoes… something to make their troubled life a little easier.

Shoes were often requested. Many Ukrainians had fled in slippers or flip-flops. Each refugee received a new pair of shoes. Holly sometimes volunteered to buy the new clothes (bras, socks, and underwear) and shoes the free shop offered. She was struck by how cheap these things were sold: $3 for a bra, $15 for fairly good shoes.

The children’s corner in the free shop that helps Ukrainian refugees in Krakow, Poland.

She worked eight hours a day and wrote her blog (part diary, part travel diary) before and after her shift at the Free Shop. Although she resisted asking friends for money, her readers wanted to help. So she created an account for donations and raised $2,300. It was more than enough for all the shoes the store had to buy for a day. Holly was thrilled.

But where stressed refugees and their uprooted children congregate, tensions can escalate into verbal and physical clashes. The atmosphere could feel like a Black Friday sale, with women battling to grab the clothes they love before anyone else. Holly doesn’t speak Ukrainian but she found her ‘teacher’s voice’ harsh and her sensitivity came in handy.

Holly’s special education background and experience with kindergartens proved invaluable at Kid’s Corner. Although most of the young children who came to collect toys did not show it, she understood that they had been traumatized by what they had been through before fleeing their homeland, leaving their fathers behind, being torn from their cousins, grandparents and friends.

She saw a 12-year-old boy pretend to eat plastic food over and over again. She says traumatized children often act younger than their actual age. 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 separation anxiety more than usual and screamed when their mother dropped them off. .

As Holly wrote, “Trauma during free play doesn’t always seem problematic. But if a loud noise was heard next to the children, or if they tried to learn something new, or if they did not succeed even for an insignificant object or if they did not find their mother in the crowd , we might see them fall apart faster and take longer to recover… Children who have been traumatized need more care and understanding.

As Holly left Krakow, the Free Shop lost her home in an abandoned mall. It is now closed but will soon reopen in three new locations: a warehouse, a store for new goods and another for used clothes. There is a constant turnover of volunteers, as some only stay for a day or two.

Maybe you feel, as Holly did, “I want to make things different, even if a little different is all I can muster.” If you are visiting Krakow and would like to volunteer at the Free Shop or elsewhere, contact Agnès at the Multicultural Center on [email protected].

And if you want to learn more about Holly’s adventures in Poland – her volunteer work, her travels, her fight against COVID – she will be publishing her blog as a book soon. It will be for sale on its website — https://www.hollywinter.com as well as several others she has written. The sales will help fund future summer trips.

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