Eager for Treasure, Not Trash

At the Arlington site, Goodwill employee Howard Poole helps Jackie Taner of McLean unload items she is donating.
At the Arlington site, Goodwill employee Howard Poole helps Jackie Taner of McLean unload items she is donating. (Sarah L. Voisin - Twp)
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 30, 2005

At the close of Christmas on Sunday night, the busiest giving season of the year began.

In homes across the country, Americans started cleaning their closets, shaking out toy chests and loading up shiny black bags with a yellow drawstring bow.

Their donations will yield millions of dollars in tax deductions and an annual boost for nonprofits, such as Goodwill Industries, where cars line up around the block during the week before New Year's to deliver donations in drive-through drop-off formation.

Such an outpouring of generosity inevitably leads to the equally daunting task of delving into the mountains of donations to sort the treasures from the trash.

"Most people have no clue what's involved with taking a garbage bag of stuff and getting it to the person who needs it," said Lindy Garnette, executive director for SERVE Inc., a Manassas-based nonprofit that operates a 60-bed homeless shelter and food bank.

Among the winter coats, shampoo bottles and canned SpaghettiOs that are donated to homeless shelters, there are 20-year-old golf clubs and old Victoria's Secret Valentine's Day gifts.

There are six-year-old computers, beta VCRs, broken toys, puzzles without all the pieces and unmatched shoes.

Many of these gifts end up in the trash, or they are given to yet another charity -- one with more storage space -- such as the Salvation Army, which has its own dump trucks and daily pickups scheduled to haul away the unsellable stuff from its stores.

After all the sorting, cleaning, storing and transporting, gifts sometimes end up being more trouble than they are worth for strapped nonprofits, which have limited staff and resources.

Despite the gamble, most nonprofit employees smile and graciously accept the presents that turn up on their doorsteps. One day they might get a stack of gift cards from Target that can be easily distributed to single mothers to help with their children's school shopping. Another day they could get a photocopier that might sit in their office for two years without ever making a single copy.

"When you are reliant on charity, you don't want to bite the hand that feeds you" by turning away anything, said George A. Jones, executive director of Bread for the City, Washington's largest provider of food and clothes for the needy, which receives $1.5 million worth of in-kind donations each year.

Charities accept an amazing variety of items that can either be used to further their missions or resold to raise money for them. Garnette noted that homeless shelters are always in need of commonplace items such as toilet paper, light bulbs and trash bags.

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