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Donations of clothing often wastes resources

BY SUSAN KIM | HONDURAS | December 18, 1998

HONDURAS (Dec. 18, 1998) -- Today a tractor trailer loaded with clothes,

water, medical and cleaning supplies, and canned goods all donated by a

U.S. community, is expected to arrive in Honduras.

How did it get there? With detailed planning, long volunteer hours -- and a

lot of happenstance luck. Tracing its route from the Rock Creek Church on

Maryland's eastern shore shows why response organizations often request money

over goods. Shipping supplies to Central America isn't for the faint of heart

-- or the faint of wallet.

The cost of sending a 40-foot container of materials to Central America ranges

from $1,600 to $2,000, according to estimates from response workers and

shipping companies. And that doesn't include the cost of storing, sorting, or

distributing the goods.

"Sending anything that hasn't been specifically requested is more problematic

for those who have been impacted than if nothing had been sent in the first

place," said Miller Davis, manager of Emergency Response for the Church of the

Brethren. "People end up having to rent warehouses, or they watch goods get

destroyed by the weather, or they open up boxes of supplies that are unusable

because they're damaged or simply inappropriate."

But this particular truckload of goods might just make it. After passing

through customs, it could be available to Hurricane Mitch survivors by

Christmas. That is, if all goes as planned -- and the planning has been

extensive to get it from the Rock Creek United Methodist Church in Chance,

MD to Central America.

When Rock Creek members watched coverage of Hurricane Mitch‚s devastation in

Central America, they and their neighboring congregations began collecting

donations for the survivors. Response was overwhelming. Like so many people

across the globe, they wanted give something of their own to help.

The Rev. Henry Zollinhofer, a pastor at Rock Creek who has lived in the

Caribbean, offered them some guidance. "He helped us narrow down the pile, for

example, redirecting the winter clothes for local use because of the climate

in the Honduras," said Bill Hipkiss, a church member who helped coordinate the

drive for donations.

But like countless churches and disaster response organizations, this church

was faced with a problem: "Now that we have it, what do we do with it?" asked


He met a doctor who had visited the Honduras as part of a medical

team. In turn, the doctor told him to contact Chiquita Bran Company, which

makes regular shipments to Central America. Hipkiss was delighted when

Chiquita agreed to ship the goods for free to the region.

But Chiquita's ship was leaving from Wilmington, DE -- a three-hour drive from

the church. Church members packed the goods into their own trucks and

vans, and then loaded them onto a tractor trailer. The donations filled more

than 50 four-by-four-foot pallets, and the ship left last Tuesday.

Then another problem: how to get the goods to those in need? Chiquita agreed

to store the goods in a warehouse -- but didn't have the staff or resources to

actually distribute donations. Hipkiss' initial doctor contact also

shared the name and e-mail address of a Zion missionary in the Honduras.

Hipkiss explained the situation, and the missionary agreed -- with help from

his family and friends -- to distribute the supplies.

In yet another gesture of goodwill, Chiquita agreed to take videotape footage

of goods being moved so that church members would be able to see their

donations in action.

This happy ending is comparatively rare. In Montreal, Canada, more than 3,000

boxes of boots, sleeping bags, clothes and toys destined for Central America

are still sitting in a warehouse, where they've been for two weeks because the

city doesn't have funding to ship them.

Ellen Kupp, a communications manager with World Vision Canada who recently

returned from Central America, said hurricane survivors do need food and

clothes -- but it's better to purchase the items there. "Northern clothes don't

fit the southern climate," she said. "And in Central America -- anywhere really

-- people don't always appreciate used clothing. It's a question of dignity.

It's also very costly to fly stuff down there."

The cost of warehousing donations is also daunting -- even in the U.S. for

smaller-scale disasters. In Seguin, TX, Ramirez Trailers donated 17,000 square

feet of warehouse space for a donation center. "The cost of utilities alone

had to be $3,000 a month," said Bill Shupe, chair of the Guadalupe Valley

Ministerial Alliance. When they began collecting donations, they were soon

overwhelmed by used clothing.

In response to Hurricane Mitch -- and many other disasters -- why do so many

churches and organizations immediately respond with clothing drives and

donation collections without knowing exactly what's needed or how to get it


"Because most of us see the state of clothing on the backs of disaster

survivors. Then we look in our closets or in our pantries, and we want to give

out of that abundance. I'm appreciative of that feeling," said Davis.

Collecting donations can work if donors know exactly what to give -- and a

cost-efficient way to deliver it. Both Adventist Community Service (ACS)

and Later Day Saints Charities have successfully shipped donations to

Central America this fall -- but not without careful planning.

Having a defined list of needs, processing and packing items, enlisting

volunteers on both sides to handle goods, and soliciting donated shipping or

trucking are essential components to answering needs through material

donations, said ACS spokesperson John Gavin. "Handling donated goods is not an

amateur activity," he said. "There is nothing worse than when spontaneous

truckloads start arriving at the scene of a disaster -- and nobody

knows what to do with them."

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