As I mentioned in my last post, we've adopted 3 extra families this Christmas (in addition to the three families and 25 homeless the church bought gifts for). And in case buying presents for families in need isn't something you do regularly, you should know it's a fair amount of work. For us, it includes food, clothes, toys, and sometimes stockings. It includes buying, sorting, wrapping, sorting some more, and delivering. It can be quite consuming and very costly.
To cut costs, I asked friends in the area who also do outreach ministries if they had "extras" and a couple did. We went to CAYA ("Come As You Are" ministries and sorted through the donations they received from the girl scouts. We found about 10 items in the bags she showed us and then thanked her and prepared to leave. She was disappointed we hadn't found more and I told her we needed clothes for "itty bitty" kids (toddlers and young elementary) so she took us to a different room with more bags and invited us to look some more!
As we sorted, there were a couple of things that struck me and I thought I would share.
1) Some people separated clothes by size and gender (4 year old boy in one bag and 9 year old girl in another). This was SUPER helpful. When you are looking for clothes (for 20 people) you keep track of people by gender and size...so knowing that a whole bag was for 4 year old boy and I didn't have a 4 year old boy to look for meant I could skip the whole bag. Also, knowing that I did have a 9 year old girl meant the other bag was one to really examine. So if you are donating, or even just organizing...keep it simple! Designate by size and gender!!
2) Different people have different standards. Some clothes were in awesome shape...hardly worn and good hand-me-downs. Other clothes were stained and worn and looked as though they had made it through 10 generations...these are not the items to donate. If it's too ratty for you to wear...it's probably too ratty for someone else to wear. So, save folks time and energy and just ditch it!
3) Though the woman who invited us to look through the bags knew who I was and what I do, the others in the office didn't. So, at one point the senior minister told "Joe" to take a picture and said, "that'd make a good shot Joe." In some ways it wasn't a big deal, but in other ways it was alienating. I knew we'd end up on some wall or in some photo book as the "poor people in need finding clothes at Christmas" or some such thing. The truth (or lack thereof) didn't matter. We were being type cast, as I am sure many are. All too often church groups want to take pictures (which seems reasonable enough) but all too often the pictures have the attitude of "look who needed us" or "Look who we helped" or "Look what we gave them, they'd have nothing without us". All of those notions can be degrading and even humiliating. Be cautious in taking pictures, ask first, and be very careful how you label the people and the pictures.
4) This is a side note to the picture thing, but in some cases (probably more than most of us would like to admit) Domestic violence is a factor in creating a need and victims of violence often have to hide from their abuser and taking pictures (and posting them on your website) can make them an easy target and easily found. So be doubly cautious in taking pictures if you do not know the circumstances of those you serve...
5) Where possible, give options. Not being able to buy your kids the things they need is a tough experience. Empowering parents, where possible is a way to help restore pride and dignity. the local shelters, instead of just giving presents already wrapped, gave target and walmart cards and had volunteers take parents shopping so they could pick out their own gifts. Others ask specific questions about preferences...colors...logos...etc... Another way to empower is to allow parents to wrap gifts for themselves...you may need to buy the paper/tape/ribbons, but many parents can wrap and would enjoy doing it...other don't want/need to, but giving the option is helpful and can help parents feel more a part. Where possible, give people an option.
6) In shopping for pants (in particular) I learned years ago to try and find pants that could hold a dual function...buying sweatpants allows kids to wear them to school or to bed. Fun is good. Functional is better!
I'm sure I still have a lot to learn and that we could do a better job of empowering parents, but those are just a few of this year's learnings. If you have other insights and tips, please feel free to post them in the comments!