Separating clothing into equal piles for 17 families. © Liesl Clark
Giving used clothing away to the poor here in North America is often a strangely disconnected experience. I’ve donated clothes for years to local charities, but it’s always, sadly, an anonymous gift. There’s so much joy in connecting directly with the people who need your clothing! Putting a human face on poverty and need should not be shameful. What’s troubling to me is that most charities in the US act as a buffer between you, your stuff, and the people who could use your stuff. If we could connect with those in need more easily, I believe we’d all give more freely. The more we can put a face on those who are in need, the less taboo the subjects of homelessness and poverty will become. A recent trip to Nepal compounded these revelations for me.
“Divide the clothing into 17 piles.” We had brought 4 duffel bags filled with socks, jackets, pants, hats, all the clothing necessary to keep a family warm. What we didn’t anticipate was that the clothing would have to be divided into 17 equal shares. This village has 17 households. To keep it fair amongst all families in the village, the decision was made that no matter whether a family had children or not, all the clothing would be divided evenly and the families could then trade amongst themselves for clothing based on need.
We put 17 pairs of pants, shoes, socks, shirts, jackets and hats, even stuffed animals into discreet piles. A lottery was then devised where a name was pulled out of a hat and that family could pick up a pile of clothing. I saw no bartering or trading after each family received its pile, everyone received their share happily and a little shyly.
What amazes me is that the clothing from my family and my daughter’s best friend’s family, plus some shoes from The North Face and socks donated from a shoe store could clothe an entire village, or keep them happy for a few months with some new things to keep family members warm. A few distributed toys, too, brought joy to all ages.
If you have worn clothing, please don’t throw it away. Your clothes could make a mother or child happy, help keep them warm or even provide material for new clothing that they’ll make from your old ones. I’ve seen my old pants cut up and used as patch material for a child’s pants here in Nepal, or a T-shirt worn by a lama as an under-layer of clothing for months.
As we walk away from villages here in Nepal, we take what we can from our personal duffel bags and hand them to those who could clearly use a better pair of shoes or a warm jacket. The more contact we have with those who are in need, the more we can help address all of our basic needs and ultimately share resources, re-allocating our excess clothing and food into the hands of the needy — rather than throwing it away.
Even the pencils our children’s school was throwing away made it into the hands of school children today who will use them until the pencils are mere stubs. If this is all that we do: turn people’s thrown away items into gifts for the poor, we will have done a small bit of good for children and families that have so very little here in the high Himalaya.
Are you looking for a way to donate your clothing so you know it gets to those in need? You could give it away in your local Buy Nothing group. Chances are, if you’re observing in your group, when you post your clothes, you’ll find plenty of families that could use a boost of free clothing, rather than having to buy it all new. These are your neighbors and it’s so easy to do person-to-person giving right in your own ‘hood.