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A Letter to Anyone Thinking about Donating Used Clothing this Holiday Season (Or Really Ever)

“It’s definitely the dress,” says Captain Von Trapp. “You’ll have to change before you meet the children.”

“But it’s the only one I have,” explains Maria because she had to give away all her worldly possessions when she entered the abbey.

“Well, what about this one?” asks Captain Von Trapp confused.

“Oh, the poor didn’t want this one.”

This scene from the Sound of Music has always made me laugh. But why? Is it really so farfetched of an idea that there would be clothing so ugly that even “the poor” wouldn’t want it? I believe in our culture it is. But I’m here to deliver a little news that should be common sense: “the poor” are also people and also have feelings and standards over what clothing they want to wear.

So why is this letter addressed to anyone thinking about donating used clothing this holiday season? Because as someone who has worked in the clothing bank of Annunciation House, a homeless shelter for immigrants, for a total of about 7 months I have seen clear proof that not everyone understands this idea based on some of the clothing we have received as donations. And I’m kind of tired of what I’ve seen.

So what is my advice? How do you avoid the pitfalls of bad donations that cause homeless shelter workers to write slightly angry blog posts about you (or at least roll their eyes at you)?

Well, I think it all boils down to your answer to this simple question: Why did you decide to donate that piece of clothing?

If the answer is something along the lines of, “well, it’s really cute but I haven’t worn it in a long time and it’s taking up space in my closet” then go for it! But, if the answer is something like, “I would never want to be seen in public because [insert problem with the clothing]” then it’s probably not a good idea to donate it.

Let’s go over a few specifics:

  • Jeans that have a huge hole in the crotch are not anymore useful to someone who is living in a homeless shelter than they were to you
  • Your child’s shirt with a huge stain on it that you would never want him/her to wear in public is not desirable for another parent for his/her child either
  • Socks with a hole so big that the person might as well not even be wearing a sock at all
  • Shoes with a broken buckle so that it could never stay on a child’s foot
  • A winter jacket that has lost the zipper so that it cannot truly be worn to keep out the cold

I have personally seen all of these things, and more, during my time sorting in the newly donated clothes to the shelter. Many, many times. So it really does happen.

I say all of this not because I do not appreciate the donations. I say this because I do. I appreciate the people who donate beautiful clothing that can bring joy to our guests when they find them. When a guest arrives at our door with nothing but the clothes on their back, yes they are in a state of desperation for more clothing to just fulfill that physical need, but why should it stop there? If they only have access to dirty and torn clothing, what does that say we believe about their worth? But instead, when they are given the opportunity to choose a stylish shirt or a cute pair of skinny jeans, we are restating their worth as human beings. And not everyone can or wants to work for a homeless shelter. But everyone can further its mission of brining dignity to those who pass through its doors, even if it is just with a pair of jeans you outgrew.

So please don’t waste our time or insult the dignity of our guests by thinking that someone would want that clothing that is too gross for you to even look at anymore. Please. And the next time you get tempted to donate your stained underwear to a homeless shelter, please just throw it away. And maybe even consider buying a package of new underwear to donate along with the rest of your used clothing. Because even “the poor” deserve it sometimes.

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3 comments on “A Letter to Anyone Thinking about Donating Used Clothing this Holiday Season (Or Really Ever)

  1. Sometimes people just do not use plain old good sense in their “giving”!

  2. loved your illustration from Sound of Music – very well done!

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