I just got back from volunteering.  It’s something that my sister and mother have been doing for years and they invited me to go along with them on their weekly trip after I was laid off from my job in September of last year.  Why not?  It’s not like I have anything better to do.

Mom also usually buys me lunch afterward, so she obviously knows how I’m motivated…

Volunteering is kind of hard.  This isn’t some doyenne bullshit volunteering with an art museum.  The organization that my mom and sister volunteer at is Sunshine Division, which is a charitable partnership or offshoot of the Portland Police Bureau.  Its goal is to help people in need with food for their tables and clothes for their backs, alleviating some of the pressures of daily living and obstacles to work and education.  I’m paraphrasing their mission in the extreme, but that’s the gist.  The beneficiaries of Sunny D (as we call it) are people who have come into contact with the police or the courts somehow and been referred through either of those agencies.  The referral can come through a fire department to help those who have lost a home.  I’m sure there are “clients” that come through family court.  The Silver Fox and I have begun talking about how to get people from Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare – on whose BoD he sits – into the pipeline as they transition from the Cascadia supported living facility into their own homes.  The goal is to make it easier during tough times.  If I’m not mistaken, a referral allows a client four visits to the food and clothing warehouse over in NE Portland.

One thing that I really like about the approach at Sunny D is the goal of making the experience feel less like charity and more like actual shopping.  To that end, they have set their food area up like a mini-store so people can browse through the selection and pick what they like from the produce, bread, beverages, health and beauty, snacks and frozen or refrigerated goods that are available.  The clothing side – called Threadz – has just been granted money to re-fixture the small space they work out of in order to maximize the donated inventory people can shop through.  Someone also donated new laminate flooring for the space to replace the decades-old, stinky carpet that was in the room and the installation labor is being donated by the people doing the work.

There are guidelines, to be sure, that limit what people can take so that there is enough for everyone, but still, there is a selection process that reduces the feeling of taking a hand-out and preserves the self-esteem of the clients.

Oh, so back to the part that’s hard.  Let’s see how many hard parts there are:

Part 1:

On my first trip, my empathy trigger nearly broke.  I was working in Threadz, just hanging clothes and collecting empty hangers while my mom and sister assisted clients – oh, that guideline I mentioned earlier?  In Threadz, it’s one bag per person in the household.  They can also pick a coat per person or a blanket per household if they are available.  Those are the rulz in Threadz.  I was watching the first couple of clients shop with my sister helping them as needed, which might only mean taking clothes out of their hands to let them keep shopping while she bags their selections.  It could also mean running back to the warehouse to see if there’s anything the client may need that isn’t represented.  This couple had a household of six – if memory serves – and they were looking for work clothes for the husband and son specifically.  The speed with which they shopped was amazing.  They were super quick, essentially just needing the mother to sign off on whether the fabric of a garment was salvageable.  Broken zippers, holes, ripped seams…she gave an approving nod if she could fix it.  Size, style, color or pattern were not relevant.  The absence of those impractical considerations was humbling.  Particularly in the face of the meager selection that Threadz has for men and boys.  You could see that it was better to have something that was too short or hideous versus nothing at all.

Part 2:

There are bad clients.  Go figure, this is ‘Murica…if there’s a system, someone will game it.  That said, one of the reasons for the guidelines, outside of the ability to distribute to as many people as possible, is to prevent people from taking things and just selling them.  Premium sportswear and gear – like Nike products – are limited to one item per household.  “Sorry, only one of your kids gets cool shoes” is a shitty thing to have to tell people with just the sweetest, well-behaved kids at that age when over-privileged kids are the meanest.  But a few bad clients ruin it for everyone else, right?

Part 3:

I come from retail, so I look at what’s going on in the Threadz room as pretty stupid-easy processes.  I make off-hand comments about how to make small differences to make a big difference and everyone gets excited.  It’s second nature to me, but for the folks that volunteer there, it can be a struggle.  Thirty years of sorting priorities in a “customer service” environment to make sure you’re as ready for your customers as possible gives one an ability to react quickly and effectively that I take for granted but others are apparently amazed by.  Yay, me!

That said, you’ve got volunteers and you’ve got non-profit people trying to figure out how to get clothes into the hands and onto the backs of people who need them.  My sister and mother do a great job of moving quick and making an impact while they are there.  They try to set or stage more clothes from the almost dozen 4×4 pallet-sized sorting containers as well as the 55-gallon sorting drums so that clothes are hung on rolling racks by size for easy fill-in on days that they don’t work.  I don’t know where that process of theirs came from.  Maybe it was something they were taught or instructed to do, but knowing my sister, I would imagine she came up with the process on her own.  It just makes sense to do it the way she does.  However, with the leadership not having a retail background, what we tend to walk into on our days is what some other volunteer thought made the most sense on their shift versus something similar to what we left the prior week.  I’m sure that was confusing; I was trying to illustrate an opportunity in the system and I really don’t speak dysfunction fluently.  There’s a lack of direction for the volunteers that I’m sure leads to frustration for many of them.  I’m sure my mom and sister aren’t the only volunteers there that come in, assess the “merchandising” needs, reset the fixtures to their standard, assist clients and then try to prepare for the next volunteer in the manner that makes the most sense to them.  The non-profit leaders tend to yield to the volunteer’s judgment on any given day or shift, regardless of the individual standing in front of them.  I can’t blame them, it’s a special skill to motivate someone to do something to a particular standard for free.  I, for one, hate sorting and hanging kids/infant clothes.  I “sell’ that task to the other volunteers – all women, that might get that shot of maternal adrenaline sorting through all the cute baby stuff.  But, really, someone there has a title of Volunteer Coordinator and what I observe is a lot of uncoordinated volunteers…I’d say that is where the largest opportunity lay.

On the flip side, I’m sure that there is also a significant fear of alienating long-term volunteers by suddenly imposing standards on them.  The viscous cycle at work here is that the dysfunction they volunteer in is another form of alienation that may cause them to stop volunteering.  They can go seat people in a theater for free theater tickets and not have to worry about getting cooties from the clothes or clients.

Having that retail-minded second nature allowed me to participate in planning the fixture configuration for using the grant money that Sunny D recently received.  It was super-easy for me to look at and make recommendations; it was also fun to sit down and just draw the proposal out.  I was happy to be able to take my sister’s feedback on what would make the room more useable from her perspective and try to incorporate that into the new plan to provide something for the people who volunteer there, too.  Making those recommendations, checking the fixture order for accuracy against the plan and talking through the execution with the person doing the install made the process a lot less stressful to the non-profit executives that work at Sunny D and are the ones held accountable for how their donations are used.  It’s got to be a big deal for them to be able to show what they did with past donations in order to secure future funds.  Being successful at those projects when they involve a field that they really have no expertise in is more daunting than I can imagine.  It would be like me working at Jiffy Lube…I don’t know anything about that crap.  The difference is that I wouldn’t care, these people do so they get credit for that.

Part 4:

Threadz doesn’t have a lot of clothes.  Sure, there’s a LOT of clothes, but until recently, most of the donations came from private citizens.  The donations tended to be leftovers from a garage sale or petite sized West Hills fashion.  It made it hard to provide selections for larger people, who may tend to be a little less inclined to make a donation based on a change in the seasonal fashion.  Men also tend to hold onto their clothing longer simply because they shop less than women, making the inbound men’s clothes look like a trickle compared to the river of women’s clothing.  Recently, someone secured a partnership with Fred Meyer for their older, unsold clothes, which resulted in dozens of those 4×4 pallet-sized bins of clothes coming in.  DOZENS!  It was amazing to see, but the concern came back to the same issue…it’s predominantly women’s fashion and while it is an incredible volume, the assortment gets pretty small.  Guess what?  That color or print or size didn’t sell in any of the stores, so we got a ton of it.  Not figuratively.

Consider this a shameless plug to go into your closet and look at what you really aren’t wearing or using.

Anyway…that’s what I’ve been doing with a morning or two a week since I got laid off last Fall.  It’s nice and rewarding in it’s own way.  It’s not a way I can take to the bank, unfortunately, but life can’t simply come down to money, right?  Did I mention “free lunch”?

Now that I’ve been doing it for several months, I know that the answer to the rhetorical question I asked at the beginning of this little string of word vomit and crimes against the English language is that this is probably more important than anything else I do all week, so, no…I didn’t have anything better to do with my time off from work.


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