First-year students reflect on the spirit of donating after time spent in local shelter

First-year students Melissa Dorrance and Christiana Martin learned a valuable lesson about the act of giving and donating after spending several hours each week throughout the semester at a local homeless shelter. The two are in a first-year seminar studying homelessness and poverty.

Below is a reflection from one of their experiences as they worked with the residents to sort through boxes and bags of donations.

We recently had the opportunity to spend one of our evenings helping shelter residents as they sorted through numerous boxes and bags that had been donated to the shelter within the past week. As the end of the year approaches, more and more people have been entering into the spirit of holiday giving, and have been donating old clothes and household items to the shelter. While many people are donating in the spirit of goodwill, as we ourselves have done in the past, there seems to be a chilling sense of nonchalance that has permeated the act of giving. While some of the boxes contained quality clothes that had little wear, the contents of other boxes could only be described as waste.

Why someone would donate some of these items for other people to wear or use is beyond us. There were filthy socks, stained gloves, crumpled diapers, a broken watch, and what we could only assume was a box of old condoms. There were several boxes filled with mannequin heads that may have once been the victims of a cosmetology class. All of us-including the shelter residents-were at a loss as to what the previous owner intended the residents to use them for. It appeared that it was simply easier to dump all these boxes at the doorstep of the shelter than to sort through them.

It was very odd evaluating these donated items and trying to decide what was worth keeping. The fact that the shelter residents were sorting through these with us, finding clothes they wanted keep, and offering clothes for us to take as well-many of which were items we could have donated ourselves-made the issue very personal. As we went through the items together, each resident was very specific about what he or she did or did not want. This wasn't surprising to us, having grown to know the residents over the semester and having a sense of their personal tastes. But it was a reminder of the common view that homeless people should take whatever others offer them.

When we went to Washington, D.C. with our first-year seminar class earlier in the semester, we gave clothes to one homeless man who was very specific about what was and was not his style, an attitude that can frustrate those serving the homeless. "The homeless," who are often perceived as a uniform category rather than individual people who don't have homes, are viewed as one large problem that we have to deal with. Instead of dealing with their individual wants and needs, we merely throw our excess at them and expect the problem to go away.

Is our shelter being used as a waste dump? Are we dumping not only the junk that we no longer want in our homes, but also the people who we no longer feel like dealing with, those whom we consider to be the worthless of society, into homeless shelters? Have we become so complacent that we pat ourselves on the back for our charity without thinking about the people whom we are supposedly trying to help?

Were the people who donated the dozen mannequins caring individuals who were simply careless in their actions or did they really think the homeless residents were worth the junk they were giving? As you pack up your boxes to donate this season, think about what you are giving and who you are giving it too. Give items you would give to someone you care about, not castoffs to be given to someone of little worth.


Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Posted: Fri, 18 Dec 2009

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