What I Did This Summer

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I went to Krakow in southeast Poland, which has a painful history and a youthful spirit. I volunteered for two weeks with a Norwegian-based non-governmental organization, A Drop in the Ocean, which distributes new and used clothing to Ukrainian refugees.  

Gretchen Dykstra (center) with two Polish volunteers

Gretchen Dykstra (center) with two Polish volunteers. (Photos provided)

We worked 9 to 5, five days a week, from a massive space inside a bankrupt, soon-to-be-demolished shopping mall. Donations arrived each day at the loading dock, bag by bag, pallet by pallet, from individuals and clothing manufacturers from Europe and elsewhere.  

We unpacked, sorted, sized, marked, boxed and hung thousands of items for the 500 to 600 people, mostly single mothers, who arrived three days a week. On the other two days, we worked our way through the mountains of donations and started all over again.

We all were there to help, but what spurred us varied. A few were inspired by faith. A young man who teaches high school history in Connecticut, and performs magic shows on the weekends, asked a priest why God wasn’t helping homeless people and the priest replied, “God is helping. He has sent you.” A young Mormon couple from Utah spent the summer volunteering in the mornings and working remotely at their IT jobs back home from 4 p.m. to midnight. 

Some, like the former chief financial officer of a major art museum in New York City, have Ukrainian relatives. A Russian gemologist at Bloomingdales is married to a Ukrainian in New Jersey. “How could I not come?” she asked. 

"Part of the free store — we were asked not to take photos of any of the Ukranians”

“Part of the free store — we were asked not to take photos of any of the Ukrainians”

An Army veteran, now living in Germany and working for a forklift business based in the U.S., always wanted to work for an NGO but was not qualified. This partially addressed that dream. A retired FBI agent shared that curiosity about humanitarian relief work.  

The intellectual of the group worked in policy and politics in Washington, D.C., studies Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and hopes to join the foreign service. A California woman with extensive management experience never wants to run anything ever again and sought out an international group that might offer her a regular way to channel her energy and generosity. Her traveling companion, a recently retired director of Medicaid for a California county, was, like me, tired of just sending checks.     

Boxes to sort

Boxes to sort

The Ukrainians deserve the extensive help they are receiving, but I kept thinking about other people and places that I have seen — Honduras after a hurricane and India after cyclones, starving children in Ethiopia, rows of coffins in Malawi because of AIDS and blast walls in Kashmir and Baghdad. 

Even if it was just a drop in the ocean, I was glad to do my part in Poland, but I will never say again that sending a check does not matter. Everyone in pain, no matter how far from loading docks and public consciousness, deserves our support.

Dykstra is a resident of Cold Spring and the author, most recently, of Echoes from Wuhan: The Past as Prologue.

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