When disasters strike or a news story about homelessness tugs at your heart strings it’s normal to want to help. To get straight to the point of this post, often times, the donation of items ads more harm during a disaster or emergency situation, especially when given in large quantities from all sorts of people after a large disaster. The times that donations of items actually help most is when specific items needed by specific people are donated.

I’ve read an article about the Operation Christmas Child shoebox ministry that was founded by Franklin Graham and Robert Pierce. The definitely recommend the article to read. It was published on Baptist News Global and written by Blake Tommey. One part of the article that jumped out at me was the description of one of the gifts given in one of the boxes:

“As a young boy pried open his shoebox, a plastic Slinky emerged. He held it in front of his bewildered eyes as if to ponder all the ways that the colored spring could be fun or amusing. He had no clue.

Recognizing the boy’s confusion, a local pastor swooped in to provide aid and discover the proper use of a Slinky. Both pastor and child tinkered for a moment until they reached a verdict. Swinging it clumsily around his neck and fastening it under his chin, the pastor let out an amused chuckle at his new piece of American jewelry, courtesy of Operation Christmas Child.”

Even something like a gift for a child ends up being a useless item in the end as they had no idea what to even do with it. About two years ago I joined in with a local group who was doing the Operation Christmas Child boxes (this is before I realized who founded the organization or else I’d never have sent one). Because I was busy I ordered one through the website. I remember thinking that some of the toys were rather dumb and ended up choosing a recorder because at the very least they could play music with it. In the end, even the money for the box I chose would have made more of a difference in those children’s lives.

Instead of going into more indepth details of why it’s best not to donate your things, specifically for large scale disasters and not to individual people, the rest of this post will focus on ways you can donate items that are specifically needed (no, no one in an emergency would ever want your used tea bags).

  • To begin, as noted in an article on fashionista pointed out, don’t buy as much stuff. The less amount of things you have, the more money you have for doing things in life, including donating to worthy causes.
  • When buying things, find things that are good quality. Better quality lasts longer, therefore you are less likely to have to replace it.
  • When your things do wear out, consider finding out if the seller recycles the item. For example, Nike will take your old Nikes and reuse them for other things. (Do a search for Nike Reuse-a-shoe to find the nearest location to you that takes old Nikes.).
  • Upcycling or repurposing your items. This involves taking your item and using it for another purpose. This can be anything from cutting up a tshirt and using it as a rag to making a pond in your front yard with an old tub (Sorry, that’s the only idea that popped into my head. I am not sure anyone has actually done that. 🙂 ). If you want to find a new use for an item do an internet search and type the item name and upcycle (ex: television upcycle).

A note about recycling

Recycling is something that is praised in the west. People feel pretty good about themselves when they recycle. And in most cases recycling is a great thing. There are two areas I will note here that will give some a pause for thought when they recycle.

Many people who donate used clothing will bring it to a place like Goodwill or drop it off in one of those bins you find in most cities. One problem with this is that a large amount of clothing that is donated never ends up on the racks at second hand stores. Most of it that isn’t good enough quality is sold to textile recyclers who end up sending it overseas. There are some serious issues with this as it can be seen as a good thing, but it involves some serious repercussions on the local industries in the countries that all of these textiles end up. To learn more about this check out these two articles, one from March 2016 and one from Oct 2017.

Another big area where recycling affects the planet even though doing it seems to make us feel better in western countries, is recycling e-waste. I have barely started looking at the information about this, but large portions of our e-waste is sent overseas and stripped in ways that have a larger negative environmental impact both locally and globally than it would have if we had done the stripping in the west. To find a reputable e-waste recycler in your area check out http://www.electronicstakeback.com/how-to-recycle-electronics/ and http://e-stewards.org/find-a-recycler/.

So what do you do if there is a disaster and you want to help?

Donate to a reputable organization. I recommend Foundation Beyond Belief (https://foundationbeyondbelief.org/). Other organizations would be ones that already have an impact on the area that needs help. These organizations are usually local and are trusted by the local community. A site like Charity Navigator (https://www.charitynavigator.org/) can give you a good idea about the amount of money that a charity gives to administrative finances and how much actually gets out there to help people. I am sure there are other great sites to look at, too.

When is a good time to donate used items?

– It is a brand new or barely used good quality item.
Items like these are more likely to be put on the selling floor at thrift stores. There may be exception to both of these as a VCR from the 80s that was barely used may not be very sellable at a thrift store. It can also help to ask a local thrift store if an item would be something they could sell. You can even contact charities that do auctions to see if your item might be something they would like to sell.

– You know exactly what an organization or person needs.
Contact organizations/person/family directly and ask them what they need. Ask for specific quantities, too. If you don’t have the used items to give you can organize a community drive asking for specific items that are needed. If there are new items that are needed you can even ask local businesses to donate. For one family it may be something you can organize among your friends and their friends. If an organization you reached out to and they need a large amount of things this would be a great time to reach out to the community through social media, city council meetings (if the need is local), local newspaper, local groups who do service activities (lodges, youth organizations, schools, churches, etc), any other way you know that works to get the word out in your community.

If you are collecting used items be sure to emphasis that they should be in good shape and don’t be afraid to turn things away from people. If you are asking for specific items, put a specific number on them and put a cut off once you’ve reached the number. For example, let’s say you are collecting clothing for a family and they have a 10 year old boy who needs new pants and shirts. You would put the word out something like this: Needed – 10 jeans size 12. 10 t-shirts size 12.
The more specific you are, the less likely you will need to deal with poor quality items and having to dispose of them so the charity or family doesn’t have to.

In closing

When there is a disaster or someone is in need we should do something similar to what we do with people who are grieving: Ask them what it is exactly that they need and follow through with what we promised we would give and do.

While it feels good to give, giving (and recycling) responsibly is something to feel even more good about.

Keep giving.




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