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How Charity Begins (and apparently stays) at Home

Christina Hamlett
October 7, 2006

It seemed like such a good idea at the time. Our recent move to a larger home, coupled with the desire to redesign three rooms of furniture, put us into a spirit of generosity and giving. There has, after all, been no shortage of stories in the news lately about families who have lost all of their worldly possessions in the aftermath of Mother Nature’s torrential vengeance. This was an opportunity to help total strangers get back on their feet.

With one phone call, I told my husband, we could give someone a full bedroom set, a collection of chairs, cabinets and tables, and even an 8-year old refrigerator we had brought with us on our move three years ago from Sacramento. Combine this with boxes of dishes, linens and small appliances and someone somewhere would have enough to start life anew.

I began trolling the Internet for contact information on the various Katrina Relief organizations. “That’s fantastic,” each of them replied after I had recited my litany of items we wanted to contribute to the cause. This was immediately followed by the question, “When would you like to ship it to us?”

“Actually,” I said, “everything is at the address we’re currently in the process of vacating. I was thinking that if you had a truck…”

There was a thud of disconcerting silence.

“Oh, we don’t have any kind of pick-up arrangements,” each of them curtly informed me. “It’s the donating party’s responsibility.”

This seemed odd when one considers the amount of time and money these agencies have spent in public appeals to solicit “donations of any kind” that will enable the homeless to put their lives back together.

“How exactly,” I queried, “are donations supposed to get to where they’re needed?”

“Maybe you could ask your moving company to do it,” one young lady suggested under the guise of helpfulness.

I facetiously smacked myself in the forehead for not thinking of something so obvious. But of course! I’m sure they wouldn’t mind just taking a swing over to the French Quarter after they leave Pasadena.

I tell her that I’ve read a number of Katrina’s victims have relocated to Southern California. Certainly if the word were put into circulation that we had high quality furniture and a refrigerator we were giving away free to a good home—

“Oh they wouldn’t have time to come and get it themselves,” she informed me. “They’re too busy putting their lives back together.”

Hmmm.

I placed my next call to the local chapter of the Red Cross. After all, isn’t one of their catch-phrases, “The Red Cross is there because you care”? I was halfway through my list of items when I was interrupted by the question, “How much are all of these items worth?”

“Excuse me?” I said, a little puzzled by the question.

“What’s the cash value?” I was asked.

I named a price I felt was reasonable, considering the relatively “young” age of the fridge and the fact that some of the maple bedroom furniture had belonged to my grandmother.

“That’s very generous,” I was told.

“Well, we were thinking that there are so many people who could—“

“When can we expect your check?”

“What?”

She started to give me the address where it could be sent.

“I’m not sending a check,” I corrected her. “We’re strictly donating the furniture to a household that could use it.”

In no uncertain terms, she informed me that they weren’t interested in the goods I was describing. “Since you’ve identified their cash value, however, we’d be more than happy to accept a check.”

I asked her why large items of useful furniture didn’t fit their profile.

There was an indignant sigh at the other end of the line. “Cash would be more helpful,” she said, going on to explain that cash could buy what the disenfranchised really needed.

“You mean things like furniture and refrigerators?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“So what you’re telling me,” I said, “is that you won’t take existing furniture and refrigerators but that you’ll take cash to go buy them new ones.”


“Yes,” she replied. “We don’t have time to process used items.”

I queried whether that would include dishes, linens and appliances.

“What’s their cash value?” she wanted to know, reiterating that I could send a check for them.

“Writing you a check doesn’t solve the problem of offloading everything,” I pointed out.

“Maybe you could have a garage sale and send us the money after that,” she recommended.

In exasperation, I hung up, reminded that I’d heard similar stories about the Red Cross from associates who had gone to the trouble of organizing community food drives, only to have their donations turned away on the day of delivery. “We don’t deal with food,” they were told. “Just cash.” Cash, it seems, that would be used to go buy the same kind of canned and boxed goods that a community had spent an entire Saturday collecting for a good cause.

My hairdresser chimed in with a similar horror tale in which she had cleaned and pressed several boxes of clothing for the relief efforts. “From now on,” she declared, “I’m only donating to the SPCA to help out animals. At least with them, I know where my contributions are going!”

She and others aren’t shy in voicing their suspicions that “cash only” solicitors are putting more dollars toward administrative overhead and six-figure salaries than into devastated communities where the need for assistance is the greatest. Granted, the individuals who are onsite with rolled up shirtsleeves and tireless energy in the ravaged areas are a godsend. It’s the ones behind the desks and answering the phones who give charity a bad name.

My next call was to the Salvation Army. Hey, I’d seen their trucks scooting around town. This suggested that those trucks might actually contain large items. Items like furniture and refrigerators.

The dispatcher was enthusiastic about what my husband and I had to offer. “This will help someone get a brand new start,” she informed me. The question of whether I’d rather write a check never entered the equation. Before we hung up—a delivery date scheduled for pick-up—I asked her to repeat back the list of items so that there would be no mistaking what was on it. I also informed her that there was a flight of stairs involved. “Not to worry,” she assured me, “our drivers can handle anything.”

The particular drivers in question, of course, must have missed that memo. They arrived late in the day, a glassy eyed assistant whose first question was, “Can I use your bathroom” and his supervisor, a surly lad not much older than he was whose first comment was, “They didn’t tell us you had stairs.”

Oddly, he was clutching the dispatch memo that not only listed the items to be picked up but included the notation, “There are stairs”.

He took a look around the apartment and announced, “I guess maybe we’ll take the end table and one of the chairs.”

“What about the rest?’ I asked.

He took great delight in informing me that what was picked up was “at the driver’s discretion”.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“If we don’t feel like doin’ it, we don’t,” he retorted.

I’m definitely in the wrong line of work, I thought. How cool a job would it be to simply say to my editor, “It’s at my discretion not to do any work today. I think I’m going to go to the beach and drink Margaritas instead…”

I pointed out to him that the dispatcher had told me that the drivers could handle everything that was on the list.

He snorted in laughter. “Yeah, well the dispatchers tell people whatever they want to hear. We’re the ones who really call the shots.” He went on to tell me that his glassy-eyed assistant was in a drug rehab program. “If he screws up and drops something, he’s out of the program and I get fired.” He further explained that the Salvation Army didn’t carry workers’ comp insurance for their drivers. I found myself wondering whether the Salvation Army is aware of how blithely their drivers make disparaging remarks about their ethics and business practices.

I reached for my cell phone and announced that I was going to call the dispatcher back and verify what he was telling me.

“Go ahead,” he said, with a shrug of indifference. “People complain all the time but nothin’ ever happens.”

He grudgingly agreed that he could take the headboard and footboard but not the metal rails and hardware that went with it. “We don’t do rails,” he said.

Somewhere out there, I think, is someone who’s going to get a new headboard and footboard and absolutely nothing to attach it to an actual bed.

By the next day, our apartment manager was involved in the dilemma. “You need to send bigger guys,” she told the supervising dispatcher, describing that the prior two were not only disagreeable but were also on the wimpy side.

Five more days would pass before a second pick-up crew was sent. “Nobody told us there were stairs,” the first one grumbled. “What are these metal things for?” the second one asked, picking up one of the bed rails.

“The headboard and footboard were picked up by your cohorts last week,” I explained. “They said they didn’t do rails and hardware.”

“Idiots,” he muttered under his breath.

The moral of this story?

No matter how well intentioned you are to help out your fellow man, the gatekeepers have a hard time seeing past the dollar signs in their eyes.

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