What to Give?
In Wake of Tornadoes, Too Much “Stuff” Causes Hardship
By Susan Kim*
March 14, 2012 — What will help tornado survivors more – 20 cases of Frosted Cake Confetti Pop-Tarts or $20?
At the Prater Memorial United Methodist Church in Salyersville, KY, boxes of Pop-Tarts are crowding the altar and piled in the pews.
Another row of pews is filled with donated stuffed animals that seem eager to help in their own cuddly, inanimate way, picking up the vibes of their human donors, who just want to give something – anything – to people who have been devastated by the March tornadoes that ground through the Midwest and South.
Volunteers are busy sorting donations, taking down contact information, offering meals and listening to the harrowing stories of tornado survivors.
And the volunteers are also thinking about where to stash the Pop-Tarts and stuffed animals on Sunday morning so they can open the doors for worship and try to bring a sense of normalcy to people who lost everything in a matter of minutes.
It's not that the Pop-Tarts won't get eaten, or the stuffed animals won't eventually find loving owners, explained the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR's assistant general secretary for US Disaster Response.
“My guess is that, while some tornado survivors will pick up a box of Pop-Tarts or some stuffed animals, most of these will be stored in this church, maybe somewhere else, for quite a while before they're given away on some other occasion,” he said.
After a disaster – especially if you aren't local to the disaster – it's a better choice to give money, not “stuff,” he added.
“Material donations occupy the time of volunteers and it's often impossible to time the arrival of truckloads of donations to match the always-changing needs of the disaster survivors. Cash donations enable UMCOR to send help exactly where and when it's needed,” Hazelwood said.
After a disaster, donations of used clothing are so common, and they come in such huge quantities, that responders have dubbed the piles of clothing “the second disaster.”
To cope with this clothing overload in Kentucky, UMCOR is working with the United Methodist Mountain Mission, a project of the Kentucky Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church that, even in non-disaster times, collects donated goods and sells them for affordable prices at “Opportunity Stores” throughout Kentucky and nearby states.
Mountain Mission has warehouse space to store clothing and other material goods that are already overflowing in tornado-stricken towns in Kentucky and other states.
“We will process the overflow and make sure that needed items are getting to the right areas,” said Karen Bunn, executive director of Mountain Mission.
She walks through the warehouse, explaining that some donations of clothing are in such bad condition that Mountain Mission can't use them. These clothes are baled – like hay – into thousand-pound squares. Five days after the tornadoes hit eastern Kentucky, clothing bales are beginning to fill up a semi-truck, which will eventually hold 40 bales – or 40,000 pounds -- of clothing.
The bales, said Bunn, are bought by a local recycling company that then ships them overseas. “The clothing, it just never stops coming in,” she said.
*Susan Kim is a journalist and regular contributor to UMCOR.org.