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Eager for Treasure, Not Trash
Charities Sort Through Piles of Donated Goods, Some of Which They Can't Use

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.

Some charities have rules that prevent them from accepting certain types of donations. For example, some cannot accept donations containing alcohol, which could include mouthwash.

A few simple rules can help donors ensure that their contributions will be of value to the people they hope to help.

The first thing donors can do is pitch the hole-filled jeans and the couch with the stuffing pulled out, items that could end up at the dump anyway, Garnette said.

"I used to think you shouldn't throw anything away," she said. But after spending three days sifting through donations in the thrift shop run by SERVE Inc., she came to realize that "sometimes the trash is a really appropriate place."

For salvageable items, it helps to make sure they are clean and in good repair so that the nonprofit does not have to spend extra time or money fumigating or fixing anything, she said.

The next thing people can do is call the shelters or nonprofits in advance to see if they have space or use for the items. Many organizations have wish lists for the items they most need or guidelines for things they do not accept.

"We try to be as selective as possible," said Michele Booth Cole, executive director of the D.C. Children's Advocacy Center, which serves children who have been physically or sexually abused.

In addition to the practical limitations on space and resources in the small office, Cole said the center prefers gifts that further its mission.

"We help children who have been abused. People have lied to them, treated them badly. . . . We want to give items to the children to boost their self-esteem and make them feel good about themselves," she said.

The nonprofit's online wish list asks for brand-new clothes and specific kinds of lotion or soap.

Miriam's Kitchen, a soup kitchen based in Washington, sets similar standards.

"We want high-quality, nutritious food" for the 200 homeless people the kitchen feeds every morning, said executive director Scott Schenkelberg. "This may be the only hot meal that they get throughout the day," he said.

Menus are carefully planned and feature fresh produce and meats rather than the leftover holiday cookies from someone's office party "or the sodium-laden canned foods that may have been in the back of someone's pantry for a long time."

"If you wouldn't eat it, don't assume because someone's hungry or homeless, they would eat it," Schenkelberg said, spelling out the golden rule of giving that can be applied to toys, clothes or any other gift.

"If you would not use it or wear it, probably our folks won't, either," Garnette echoed.

As for the mountains of clothes and toys and furniture and appliances that pass that test, "we'd love to have them," she said.

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