By Karen Swank
Here come the holidays. I’ve already got my Thanksgiving plans made, including where I am going and what I am cooking. I’m working out what to do at Christmas. Some people I know already have their trees up and decorated. Others are ticking off how many gift-buying days remain. A lady told me the other day that she’s already done shopping and wrapping. Wow.
With the holidays comes that special wave of giving. This is, for me, what helps to offset the shopping frenzy and the multitude of things attached to Christmas that have nothing to do with Christ at all: in the holiday season, people want to give. We look beyond ourselves. The “haves” think of the “have-nots” and look for ways to be a blessing.
I sort of always knew this, but I experienced it at a whole other level last Christmas at the shelter where I worked. Monetary donations took a sudden jump. People showed up at the door daily, their arms laden with things they thought we might need. Callers wanted to adopt families. Groups looked for creative ways to bless our clients. Entire carloads of groceries were hauled through our doors.
The generosity of people was a huge encouragement. Working in a Domestic Violence Shelter means knowing on an intimate basis the horror of what people do to each other behind closed doors. It means watching people hurt, and stumble, and struggle to understand. It means telling sobbing callers that we’re full today, just like all the other shelters, but maybe we’ll have space another day. It means practicing the art of not flinching when the person talking shares something that makes you want to run screaming from the room. But as much as the horrors of the clients’ lives chipped away at my faith in the human race, the wonder of faithful donors revived hope in me that compassion still exists. If you are someone who donates time, money or resources to help those less fortunate, thank you and bless you – you are making a difference in the world today.
But sometimes dealing with donors is a whole lot of helping people feel good about helping, when the way they are helping creates more work and more waste in an already burdened system. Receiving donations means smiling, being gracious, saying thank you, and not trying to correct this problem, because some donors will simply stop giving if you offend them with your suggestions. Since today I don’t represent anyone but myself, please allow me to make a few suggestions this giving season.
1. Your perfectly good shirt with just one stain or one little hole…well, it still has a stain or hole. Maybe a starving person in Africa would be glad to have a stained or holey shirt – I don’t know, since I’ve never worked with starving people in Africa. But here in the States, unstained, intact items can be bought for a quarter apiece at goodwill stores. Used clothing is not a scarce item here. Keep it for a painting shirt, cut it up and use it for rags, or toss it in the garbage. Donating it simply means someone at the other end has to make the decision to pitch it. Please don’t clog up the system like that; most of the people working that system make minimum wage and have given up hope on ever actually getting “caught up” on the work of sorting through all that stuff.
2. Do the laundry before you pass it on. Items that look dirty, smell bad, or are full of pet hair are not going to be used. Non-profit organizations are, by their nature, understaffed and overworked. There is not a nice lady who washes up your garbage bag of not-quite-clean clothing for the poor folks.
3. Fashion is not completely dead, even amongst the homeless. This means the stuff that is too hopelessly outdated for you is not going to appeal to them either. Put it up on ebay as “retro” or something. Homeless people aren’t asking for $100 jeans or even brand new stuff, but they also don’t want to look like they just walked out of their grandma’s closet, you know?
4. Shelters and missions have to answer to health inspectors. This means they cannot serve expired foods. Most of us understand that the green beans that were good on July 31st are still good on August 2nd, even if the can says they expired August 1st. We know there’s not a little bacteria bomb waiting to be detonated inside the can on the date stamped on top. BUT health inspectors have to enforce rules. If you’ll take a second to check the expiration dates on food you’re pulling out of your cupboard to donate, you’ll save everyone some time. When receiving a huge food donation means pitching one third of the items into the dumpster because they expired two years ago…well…that’s not a very efficient usage of staff time and energy, right?
5. Cooking in a shelter or mission means trying to please people en masse. As for me, I love to try new foods and cook strange things in my own home (my son STILL complains about my Indian cooking phase and that was something like five years ago!) But anything that might seem “exotic” is probably not going to get used in a shelter setting. Stick to basics. If you want to do something really special, bring fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, juice, or some kind of better-quality meat. Almost no one donates that sort of thing. Do check in with the shelter first and make sure someone else didn’t just have the same idea; ten people can’t eat twenty pounds of lettuce before it goes bad.
6. “Peanut butter and jelly are good enough for my house, and by golly they had better be good enough for poor people!” I’ve heard that said more than once and I kind of agreed with it. Apparently lots of people think so. The organization you’re supporting probably has more than enough peanut butter and jelly, based on my experience.
7. As far as groceries go, keep this in mind: often, shelters and missions have access to food banks, where they can purchase food “by the pound” at discounts that far surpass anything the average citizen has ever experienced. The $10 you spend at your local grocery store would go a lot further at the food bank. If your heart is not totally set on choosing the items yourself, consider just giving the money. If you don’t want to give just the money because you need to control how it’s spent, carefully think through these two questions: A) Is this about what I want, or is it about being a blessing? and B) If I can’t trust this organization to spend the money wisely, why exactly am I supporting them?
8. Some of the items most frequently needed are extremely unglamorous. Community living generates a tremendous need for toilet paper, paper towels, and garbage bags. Not exactly “feel-good” items. But you’ll do a great service by giving them.
9. On a feminine hygiene note (everybody say “ewwww”), donors like to give pads, but clients prefer tampons. I don’t know “why” on either end. Just factor that in, please.
10. Sample-size shampoo and conditioner seems like such a nice thing to give. I get that. I thought it was a GREAT idea before I worked in a shelter. They get massive amounts of that stuff – lots of people think it’s a great idea. Here’s the thing: regular-size items are more convenient and get chosen first. Which means the samples get stockpiled. Once upon a time I brought home some bottles from the massive surplus we had, and I quickly discovered that my hair was a disaster when I used them. I don’t know why; it’s not exactly like I’m a highly discriminating hair product shopper. I use the cheap stuff. But the cheap stuff in regular bott
les works better than anything I found in sample bottles (and I tried several different varieties.) Yeah, my hair was still CLEAN and yeah, that should be the thing that matters most. I’m just saying – sample sizes are not as great an idea as we think they might be.
11. People under stress have a lot of headache and pain issues. Pain relievers of all sorts are needed all the time. Tylenol, Advil, Excedrin, Aleve, generics of all of these, kids’ versions of them – you can’t go wrong donating these. Just check the expiration date first.
12. One of the nicest ways to give is to call and ask what is needed. You can often meet an emergency need that you’d never have anticipated – God works that way. Tell them what you have to spend and let them shoot you some ideas. It blesses everyone all the way around.
13. A lot of people want to give directly to shelters or missions rather than to a goodwill or Salvation Army store because they don’t like the notion of poor people getting charged for their goods. I love the heart of that thought. I do. But let’s get practical for a moment. Sometimes the shelter or mission needs your clothes or other various household items, but sometimes they are overstocked and they don’t have one more inch of storage space. Those stores do incur some expenses to warehouse the items they are selling – imagine their cost for maintaining the building, heating it, and paying staff. Often the stores offer voucher programs to shelters or missions, so that clients who are getting their own places can shop there for free. Ask. And on a let’s-get-real level, it was my experience that the vast majority of homeless clients found the resources to get cigarettes. If they can manage that, they can go to the goodwill store on Quarter Day and spend fifty cents on an entire outfit. Right?
14. Giving money is vastly underrated. People don’t want to “just write checks.” Meanwhile, shelters and missions are getting grants that can only be used for improving the building, or can only be used for programming…and they just need to pay the heat bill and meet payroll. Writing a check is not a lesser option, no matter the size of the check. Send a nice note with the check. Make it a regular monthly commitment, even if it’s only a few bucks. Write the check and know you are a blessing.
15. Want to volunteer? Be patient. Call and offer. Don’t be frustrated when you have to fill out paperwork. Be willing to do what’s needed, and not just the one thing you think would be a good idea. Much of what’s needed is not glamorous at all. It’s still a blessing.
16. Most of all, when you give, start with the fact that it’s not about you. The needs might not be in the area you prefer to give. If staff is overly taxed, you might not get the recognition and effusive gratitude you expect for your efforts. The people you are trying to bless might be ungrateful or unlovely sometimes. If your gift comes with strings attached like “you must present yourselves as worthy of my efforts/time/money,” or “you must be glad to get whatever I offer,” then someone is probably going to come out unhappy. It’s not about you. When you get a handle on that, you’ll be free and you’ll be a blessing.
Just a bit of wisdom from one who knows. May something here help you, as you are helping others this holiday season.
Karen Swank has tried her hand at all sorts of things in life, including working at a Domestic Violence Shelter for a year and a half. She recently joined the ranks of the unemployed, and is looking forward to experiencing the next adventure.