While I was pretty fortunate growing up, for three years in my early teens, my mom struggled financially and a social worker provided my younger brother and me with toys for Christmas. That means that three years in a row, we received sets of Chinese checkers and dominoes that looked like they had been discovered in some grandma’s attic.
I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly in accepting donations — and the ugliest extends well beyond expired canned goods.
Now I’m the one arranging gifts for children during the holidays, and sadly, all these years later, the quality of donations hasn’t improved. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly in accepting donations — and the ugliest extends well beyond expired canned goods.
For the last seven years, my friends and I have banded together to help families who may not otherwise end up on someone’s donation list. These families are often nominated by their loved ones or referred to us by social workers, and some occasionally reach out to me directly.
Since we aren’t an official charity, people often want to give us used clothes and toys knowing that many organizations, like Toys for Tots, won’t accept them. My sense is that people think needy folks are a good way to unload their guilt — and accumulated items — from overspending on previous holidays.
Of course, it would be better not to overbuy in the first place. Think about how often a child opens a present only to disregard it the next day. It would help to re-evaluate the family’s gift-giving glut from the start rather than to throw away untouched toys next year. And while people may have qualms about tossing used items, donating them just puts the onus on volunteers like me — and my garbage men — to do it for them.
Of course, not everything we get is untouched. Every winter we turn away used toys and clothes because the interpretation of what’s “gently used” ranges across a large and scary spectrum. Every year we ask people not to donate stuffed animals, but that doesn’t stop them from dropping off bags of the rattiest-looking bears you can imagine, bears that carry allergens like dust mites and mold and, occasionally, toddler pee. The same goes for clothes, which we discourage since too often we get holey, bleached and grass-stained items. One year, I opened a bag of children’s clothes someone had dropped off only to find bedbugs living their best lives right in my foyer.
With that donor excepted, I generally don’t blame parents for wanting to give away used items. We do need better options for disposing of clothing, considering it can take 2,700 liters of water to create one cotton T-shirt that a kid will quickly dye with mud. Children’s outgrowing everything is extremely costly to the environment. After all, 85 percent of our clothes end up in landfills. However, the solution isn’t to pawn your children’s battered items off on someone else — who may go to your kids’ schools and be seen in those same clothes. (Someone is struggling in every town, whether you know it or not.)
A better plan is to think about what a child you know would like or has requested and buy two so you can donate the other. Better yet, ask the children themselves. Doing that allowed a pair of teen brothers to unwrap the twin sheet sets and mattress toppers that they had requested from my friends’ group — a practical gift most donors wouldn’t think of that materially improves their lives every night. Similarly, a child with autism and anxiety asked for a weighted blanket (and a singing pickle — no questions asked, he was surprised with both on Christmas morning).
Presents like these can also make a tremendous difference to these kids’ caregivers, who have put aside their pride to accept help and can often also use gifts themselves. As a single mom, my mother bought herself a gift every year until I was a teen and was old enough to get her something.
For them, too, basics can be transformative. For instance, some parents who rely on food pantries can’t accept much produce or quality meat because they don’t have good pots or knives to cook them with. Giving household items can help fix a family’s food insecurity.
This year, make the courageous decision to toss three-year-old Elmo and the collection of carnival prize bears in the trash. Instead, consider the impact that your giving can make on a family down on its luck and go out and buy something new for a less fortunate child.