Donation dilemma is second disaster

Groups receive everything from 100,000 toothbrushes to 40,000 cough drops - and more.


More than 100,000 toothbrushes have been donated to the 1,400 residents of Greensburg, about 72 brushes for every man, woman and child in the town.

A long sleeve, see-through, neon yellow, leopard print leotard with feather collar was once donated for disaster survivors.

Residents in Greensburg may have lost everything when a powerful tornado flattened almost their entire farming town. But thanks to the generosity of others, among the things they won't have need for anytime soon are toothbrushes and, for just the menfolk, dressy shoes.

"One group donated more than 100,000 toothbrushes for distribution to the tornado victims," reported Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Kansas Adjutant General's Office. "While everyone certainly needs toothbrushes and appreciates this person's efforts, since there are only about 1,400 people in that town, there are going to be a lot left over."

While disasters of any kind can bring out the best in people, they sometimes can also bring out the worst donations. The sometimes overwhelming onslaught of unwanted or unusable items has been termed by many as the "second disaster."

Watson, whose office headed up the relief effort for tornado-ravaged Greensburg, said she can understand why that phrase was adopted.

"Some of the stuff that got donated was pretty useless," she said.

The toothbrush donations - about 72 brushes for every man, woman and child in the town - left everyone wondering, "'What in the world are we going to do with these," she said.

A representative with the Kansas Food Bank, which was acting as a collection site for Greensburg donations, said he was asking himself that same question after someone called wanting to donate 30,000 tube tops to the tornado survivors.

"Fortunately, most people usually call us first to see if they can bring in large things or a lot of things. That way, if it's not something we can use, we can head them off at the pass," he said.

"When this guy called about the tube tops, I told him, 'No. That's definitely not something we can use,'" he said.

He said that 99 percent of the people who donate do it because they want to help.

"Then you have others who just want to unload excess inventory or who want an easy way to get rid of all the junk they couldn't sell at their garage sale and, in the process, get a receipt for their taxes," he said.

Others also speculated that some donations were made only for tax write-offs. New federal tax laws approved last August may change that, however. For material donations, donors may claim a deduction only for items that are in "good" condition. For items worth more than $500, a qualified appraisal must accompany the donation.

Kristin Kubitschek, a spokesperson for Convoy of Hope, said her organization was happy to accept items that others may consider outside their mission, but added, "There are those donations that would be a challenge for most any group."

She said that on one occasion, someone tried to deliver a truckload - 40,000 pounds, to be exact - of cough drops.

"At first we thought they were bags of candy and were excited," Kubitschek said. "Everyone loves to give candy out. But when we realized what we were getting, we had to tell them we couldn't possibly give that many cough drops out."

Kubitschek said her organization has also been offered specialized medical items such as prosthetic arms or legs or a specific medicine.

"After spending so much money on it, people hate to throw it away and instead want to give it to a good cause," she said.

Convoy of Hope no longer accepts used clothing.

Items received before that policy included a single shoe, heavily soiled clothing and a long sleeve, see-through, neon yellow, leopard print leotard with feather collar.

"We keep the leotard on hand to help demonstrate to our volunteers what we can't accept," Kubitschek said.

Linda Baker, a volunteer at a small mid-Missouri thrift shop, said that when ice storms pounded the Midwest earlier this year causing widespread and lengthy power outages, one woman brought a large stack of 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles to the shop for distribution to people affected by the storms. The donor wanted residents to have something to do while the TV was off.

"She was also nice enough to note on the lids of the puzzle boxes exactly how many pieces were missing from each - and they were all missing several," Baker said.

"It's strange what people consider worth hanging on to - and then, worse yet, worth donating to someone else," she said.

An employee at a Goodwill Industries store near Greensburg said that while most items brought to the store for survivors were rather mundane, at least one donation left him scratching his head.

"Someone brought in a set of ceramic farm animals - roosters and such - and they were very odd looking," he said.

While those contacted said they had received some "strange and unusual things" over the years, they also reported receiving many donations that were straight from the heart. Among them was a sack full of children's books with a note scribbled on construction paper from a young boy saying he was praying for Greensburg's children.

"Most of the time, people put themselves in the victim's shoes and want to donate something - anything - to help them," the Food Bank representative said.

"In fact," he added, "I'm in the process now of working with a man who drove quite a long distance to give us 500 pair of new Florsheims. Because Greensburg only had a population of 1,400, we probably won't be able to give them all out to tornado victims. However, they won't go to waste. We'll distribute them to the other agencies we work with.

"A lot of men will have some nice shoes, thanks to this man's generosity," he said.

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