I have wrestled with writing this post. I have lost sleep, have fretted, and been burdened with a mixture of the need to inform my blog readers while honoring those who lost everything in the Chimney2 Gatlinburg Fires. Ultimately, this post is to share the changing atmosphere at The Distribution Center.
It is important that people trust me, for without trust and integrity I can be lumped into the same category as a cheat and a liar. So it is with much prayers and a burdened heart that I write this post. Things are not as they once were at The Distribution Center. Most people visiting The Center now aren’t like Jack, or Kari. (Read about her here.)
In the beginning, the clientele was shell-shocked, curled within themselves. They didn’t want to be at The Distribution Center in Pigeon Forge. They just wanted their lives back, their clothes back, their pets back. They wanted to turn back time. However the need for basic essential items, and the inability to financially replace said items, outweighed their aversion to receiving kindness from strangers. Those early visitors to The Distribution Center didn’t want what I loaded into the buggy, they needed the items I loaded into the buggy. They appreciated the items. They often asked, why? “Why are you being so nice to me?” They were grateful, humble, weepy souls. They didn’t want me to give them two packs of baby wipes (which was their only means of personal hygiene at the time), they just wanted a bathroom sink and preferably a wash cloth. Perhaps that is why I loaded people up with so many items, because they didn’t want to take from someone else, someone who stood behind them with another shopper. Someone who was also reeling from such loss.
But now my friends, there’s a new group of folk frequenting The Distribution Center: the takers.
During my most recent volunteer trip I met Alice (name changed). It didn’t matter that there were over a hundred people waiting in line, Alice had all the time in the world to “shop.” Alice took twenty five minutes combing through the shampoo and conditioner samples looking for hair gel.
“Alice, we don’t have hair gel,” I explained. “We have never had hair gel during the times I have been here.”
Alice stood, flicked her hair back and said, “Then go get me some. I was told that anything I wanted you’d get. I just need tell to you what it is and you’d make it happen. I need hair gel.”
I didn’t move, neither did the six buggies behind me.
I explained, with as much Jesus-love as I possess, that we do not order items, we merely display the items donated. Then I explained that we needed to either move on, or move over because we were holding up others who were only there for baby wipes and diapers.
She moved over and sent me to the diapers, after asking for a bag where she could place the hair gel (she would not find).
I returned with bad news about the diapers. There are no size 4 Luvs.
“What do you mean no diapers! Then go upstairs and get some,” she said while handing me the cloth shopping bag which was bulging with shampoos for she, her husband, and her ten-month old twin daughters. She had taken three full size of each and at least fifty samples each of conditioner and shampoo.
Let me pause to add that I’ve volunteered many times and had no idea diapers were upstairs, but Alice knew.
Moving on, Alice announced that she needed baby bottles, a certain kind that we obviously didn’t have. Another ten minutes searching, all while me apologizing, explaining, “we only have what we have.”
Alice wasn’t happy. She rifled through the toothpaste throwing in tube after tube into another bag. I returned half of the hair-care samples to the box so that others would have some, and half of the toothpaste while she wasn’t looking.
“I need Pedialyte, she announced. I steered the buggy toward the medical area. The volunteer pointed to two cases (twenty four bottles). “That’s all we have,” he stated.
“I’ll take all of them,” she said. “I need them.”
At this point I said, “I’m sorry, but no. There are people here who may also need some. You cannot take everything for yourself.”
When I told her she could have two bottles, and only two bottles, I seriously thought she would strike me.
“One of the commissioners posted on Facebook that we could have as much as we want, that’s there’s plenty,” Alice insisted. I doubted that a commissioner had made the statement and made a mental note to check out his Facebook page, and text someone who knew said commissioner. At any rate, whoever told Alice that she could waltz into The Distribution Center and demand anything she wants, or, order volunteers to do her bidding was mistaken. Donors give what they can. Volunteers are there to serve, but not if that means you take everything to hoard for yourself.
We entered the clothing area and she began piling baby clothes into the buggy; boys clothes, for those ten-month twin girls. I didn’t say a word.
“Can’t believe there’s nothing new. Didn’t anyone donate new clothes?” she snapped. At that moment I determined my shift with Alice was over. An hour had lapsed and she was nowhere near finished. Sadly, other people waited. Other people who were, I’d soon learn, equally as demanding, and non-appreciative. People whose vehicle tags were from several counties over, who, most-likely had a roof and a warm bed.
Fearing that others would have a similar volunteer experience, I began regretting begging other people to volunteer. If you have had a similar experience I am sorry. Things were not like this in the beginning.
“I’m leaving you here,” I explained. There are only six shoppers and people have been waiting over an hour. Alice didn’t receive the monetary donation I had in my pocket because I’m pretty sure she hadn’t really been displaced. She has a good job. . . and health insurance. She makes above minimum wage and is not in the service industry. You learn these kind of things when you are paying attention to cell phone calls, ask questions, and observe people.
Coming back to the entrance I stopped and spoke with one of the stockers. I don’t know the names of other volunteers, just remember their faces, having watched them work as quickly as possible day after day, the joy in their eyes dimming as new lines crease their face.
“How you doing today?” I asked while noticing the empty shelves. “Need stocking help today?”
He broke a cardboard box, folded it flat and said, “No. I’m leaving. Not coming back. Things have changed now. We’ve got a new group of people here and they’re taking advantage. They want to empty the shelves and take everything.”
We chatted about the first visitors, how serving them was a joy. How we hugged them, slipped money in their bags while they weren’t watching. How they cried and we cried and everyone was warmed by so much love and empathy. I hugged him, thanked him for his compassion and his time. Then I and wished I had written down the contact information of those early visitors, the ones who truly lost everything.
Renea is donating the proceeds of her Christmas Story: A Hardscrabble Christmas and In the Garden with Billy to the victims she meets at The Distribution Center. Download it here.
Renea Winchester is a traditionally-published author of three books. She is a Jesus lover, a gardener, and a giver of hugs. She may be reached at P.O. Box 404, Webster NC 28788