Local store sells Polish folk art for a cause

By: Sara Kandel | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published January 23, 2012

 Mike Ostrowski, outgoing president of the American Polish Assistance Association, arranges a shelf of dolls dressed in traditional Polish garments at the APAA shop.

Mike Ostrowski, outgoing president of the American Polish Assistance Association, arranges a shelf of dolls dressed in traditional Polish garments at the APAA shop.

Photo by Sara Kandel


EASTPOINTE — Tucked away in the basement of an office building at Stephens and Gratiot, the little Polish folk art store isn’t often busy.

Most days are pretty quiet with only a handful of longtime supporters and a few local dance groups making up the majority of customers.

The volunteers who keep this place running love it when customers do stop in, but even on days when there are none, they keep pretty busy.

There’s always work to be done here, because this little shop — filled with dolls, beads, books and more — isn’t really a store; it’s a charity — the American Polish Assistance Association — that sells trinkets and folk art to benefit its cause.

The walls are packed with little colorful items. The association sells painted eggs — both real and wooden — miniature hand-carved boxes, costume vests, amber and scarves with brilliant designs in vibrant shades. Everything is handmade and everything has a story.

“This is something I picked up when I was in Eastern Europe,” says Mike Ostrowski, the organization’s outgoing president, while holding a wooden toy. “There was a monastery that on the weekend opened up to the public, and they had artisans come in and set up shops in the courtyard. There were these two older ladies that were selling toys to entertain children, and this is one of the toys they were selling.”

Their inventory is made up of the things volunteers like Ostrowski have picked up on their travels to Eastern Europe. Beside the shelves are tall stacks of cardboard boxes. Each box is marked “boys” or “girls,” with an age range.

“We send packages of clothing, medical supplies, school supplies and toys mostly to ‘dom dzieckas,’ or children’s homes — orphanages,” says Ostrowski.

On shelves lining the walls of the back room are clothes sorted in the same manner, by gender and age group. Stacked next to the shelves are more boxes packed, sealed and sorted in the same manner. On the floor there’s a pile of black garbage bags — a donation that was dropped off earlier in the day.

A volunteer will sort them when there is time, separating out clothes that are badly worn, stained or torn into one pile to be disposed of.

“It’s unfortunate because sometimes people use this as a dumping ground to get rid of their old, moldy, dirty clothes,” Ostrowski says. “That’s why we have to sort through everything.”

The volunteers take home clothes in good shape that need to be washed and shelve the ones that are clean and ready to be boxed. They do this all with an earnest desire to support the people in the land from where their ancestors came. They do it without pay, but not without thanks.

Dolores Cetlinski is one of those volunteers. She’s been with the organization since the beginning. Her brother was the founder and president until he passed away six years ago. She’s the APAA’s treasurer. She works at the store every Wednesday.

For her, the payback comes in the form of the tiny signatures that crowd the bottom of the thank you letters and the handmade cards made by the children they help.

“These little kids are real artists, I tell you,” she says. “It’s so nice when they have the children sign their names, but sometimes they just make handmade cards for us to sell, and they’re so beautiful.”

It’s the handmade cards, thank you notes and pictures the children color that keep most of these volunteers going, as the APAA’s long-term future is unclear.

Their volunteer base is shrinking and the majority of the remaining volunteers are seniors.

“We’re top heavy with senior citizens, and that’s OK because they have heart. But it would be good to span out to other generations because we want to be a little more tech savvy with the Internet, and we haven’t been able to make that transition very well,” Ostrowski says.

The economy — of both countries — has also affected their mission.

Money is tight and less people are donating here in Michigan. While group members continue to see so many struggling locally, they say things are much improved in Poland than in years past.

But for now, even if the need for help back home isn’t as widespread, Ostrowski says they’ll continue doing what they love.

“We are still shipping boxes over, because even though the economy is improving there, it’s still gaining its legs, especially in rural areas, and you can’t undo what 60 years of a socialism did overnight.”

When the APAA first organized, about 30 years ago, they say anyone and everyone was looking for help back home. Today, the orphanages, or dom dzieckas, in big cities like Warsaw have access to the Internet and government funding, and don’t really need help from organizations like the APAA.

But it’s the little ones — way out in the country, barely making a blip on the radar — that still struggle to help the poorest of the poor. They’re the ones that don’t always have access to the Internet or a way to plea for help. They’re the ones that the APAA has to seek out.

“There are still a few that contact us, that write or call us, or email us asking for help. It’s hard to say no and stop sending aid, especially when we find places that really need the help, and they’re all always so appreciative. It’s worth the work,” Ostrowski says.

For more information on the American Polish Assistance Association, call (586) 778-9766 or visit www.apaa.us.