Boxes full of donated items, from baby clothes to winter boots to bedsheets, are stacked high inside a former Milwaukee County bus garage, awaiting new homes.
Since December, volunteers with the national disaster relief organization Team Rubicon have been sorting through what they estimate to be 250,000 items in a massive logistical operation to direct donations to Afghan families resettling in the Milwaukee area.
“Filling up a warehouse is definitely a significant effort,” said Chase Adams, incident commander for the site. “Then getting the specific items you’re looking for is even a more complicated issue.”
It’s a task that’s grown more timely as the pace of resettlement picks up. Thousands of people who were evacuated from Afghanistan are being moved from their temporary housing on military bases and into homes across the country.
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Since the resettlement agencies that typically furnish refugees’ first apartments are swamped with new arrivals, a wide network of adjacent groups are stepping up to fill in the gaps.
The veteran-run Team Rubicon has taken on a major role in the process, both locally and nationally.
The group, which is typically involved in cleanup and humanitarian relief after natural disasters, has become the nation’s de facto coordinator of donations to Afghan evacuees — both at military bases and in the cities they’re moving to.
When the evacuees first arrived at places like Fort McCoy in Sparta, donations were flooding in from all angles: corporations, church groups, individuals with gently used clothes and toys.
The way Team Rubicon’s Kevin Ryan sees it, the U.S. government didn’t expect that managing those donations would be such an enormous task.
“When they started to sense the scope, they were like, now what do we do?” said Ryan, communications lead for Wisconsin. “There really wasn’t anybody that could do donation management at this national level.”
It’s been a similar experience as Team Rubicon begins working with often overwhelmed resettlement agencies.
“We’re sort of stepping into the void,” Ryan said.
At the bus garage-turned-donations warehouse, volunteers have inventoried and sorted roughly 130,000 items in the last month and have begun distributing them to groups that are working one-on-one with Afghan families.
Another 120,000 or more items are yet to be counted, Ryan said.
The groups, whether Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities or Hanan Refugee Relief Group, send in requests, and Team Rubicon fulfills them and delivers the items where they’re needed.
They say: Can we have three car seats for a family we’re working with?
Sometimes, the orders are huge, likely to fill several box trucks: 1,000 sets of sheets, 500 pillows, pallets of diapers.
One day last week, Mary O’Connor, a retired teacher from South Milwaukee, was looking through a box of new children’s clothing to fulfill a request for 18- to 24-month-sized outfits.
For much of the previous week, she counted and sorted a big shipment of pants donated by the girls’ fashion brand Justice.
O’Connor also spent time last year with Team Rubicon helping the Afghans staying at Fort Bliss in Texas. She finds the work meaningful since her son fought in Afghanistan.
“It’s kind of come full-circle because he had (Afghan) interpreters helping him. So now I get to help them,” O’Connor said. “They came here with absolutely nothing.”
More:‘We didn’t have anything’: Fort McCoy Afghans describe losing it all, starting over in America
Volunteers are working to set up the warehouse like a store, with clothes hanging from racks and shoes displayed in shelving units, in the hope that evacuees could one day visit and choose items on their own.
Currently, though, the warehouse isn’t open to the public.
Adams is juggling incoming and outgoing donations while trying to prepare the warehouse for those future plans.
From a folding table he uses as a desk in a back room of the warehouse, Adams fields a constant stream of calls and texts on three cell phones.
A growing part of his work is to wrangle donations from companies — like the pallets of girls’ pants from Justice.
About three-quarters of the items at the warehouse are donated by corporations, Ryan estimates, while at Fort McCoy it was about 40%.
Corporate donations have their perks. Volunteers don’t need to spend as much time sorting through individual items, and they know the items are new and good quality. That’s not always true with items donated by the general public, Adams said.
“Getting things from the community is really a stopgap effort until you can lock down consistent sources to meet the quantities of items you’re looking for, which is really what come through in your corporate partnerships,” he said.
Corporate donations the national Team Rubicon organization receives are often split between Milwaukee and the two other warehouse sites in Minneapolis and Denver. There are plans to open close to 30 such sites, Adams said.
“This is very much a national logistics operation,” he said.
Right now, mattresses, bed frames, kitchen tables and other furniture are “super high” on Adams’ priority list, based on the requests he’s gotten from resettlement agencies.
“Those are items that those agencies don’t have,” he said.
It’s unknown how long Team Rubicon will work out of the warehouse. Much of the evacuees’ journey, from Afghanistan to the bases to their new homes, has been marked by unexpected delays and complications.
For Adams and Ryan, it’s about making the biggest impact as quickly as possible.
Getting the LEGO sets, winter coats and shampoo bottles they have on hand into homes.
Plus, thousands of evacuees haven’t been resettled yet.
“It’s going to have to go on for a while,” Ryan said.
How to help
Team Rubicon is not accepting donations from individuals at its warehouse right now, although there are plans to open it as a drop-off site in the future.
Adams asks individuals who wants to donate to purchase items from Team Rubicon’s Amazon Wishlist. Orders will be shipped directly to the warehouse. Find the list at amzn.to/3nQHWdD.
Those who would like to volunteer at the warehouse can sign up at teamrubiconusa.org/resettlement and click on the Milwaukee volunteer link.