(Image credit: By U.S. Navy photo by Mr. Gary Nichols [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
I know many of us want to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Knowing how to help, especially from far away, is incredibly challenging. For those of you living near Houston or have the means to travel, volunteering is the most practical way to help. But for others, most of my friends and me, we are struggling to find ways to physically help the victims beyond sending the ubiquitous thoughts and prayers.
Many years ago, I studied disaster and medical relief. It changed the way I saw the world, and human suffering. It also changed how I saw common ways people offered help in times of crisis. Hurricane Katrina was the greatest education I could have asked for, though.
I coordinated volunteers, donations, and logistics for resettling Katrina's refugees in Houston. In my time studying, researching, and practicing disaster relief, I can tell you what I've learned:
Used clothing and household goods are NOT practical, unless a specific organization is requesting them. I know you're looking in your closets and cupboards thinking "I have way too much stuff. I never wear these clothes or use those dishes. Someone should benefit from my excessively good taste. My kids have way too many toys. Some of those kids lost everything. We will send Skylar's Star Wars Lego sets to Houston."
I get it. It feels good to purge and also help people. But here's the thing, and it's a very important thing: it's not helpful.
It takes tremendous manpower and a staggering amount of time to sort through freight trucks full of misandry donated used stuff that non-victim people three states away no longer want. I have sorted through many containers of donated goods in my lifetime and very little was actually helpful. It created more work. Every shipping container I sorted went something like this:
Oh, more gently used underwear? A sweatshirt with a paint spot on the cuff? This spatula almost works! Oh, and that stained baby onesie has already lived its best life. Half a box of Buzz Lightyear bandaids is thoughtful and not even a little bit sad. Are those partially filled bottles of shampoo? Fantastic! Now I will just figure out a way to dispose of this pile of junk and arrange said disposal, which will invariably require hours of work from my small and fatigued pool of volunteers. It's okay! This thoughtfully donated junk is way more valuable than very limited and precious human resources.
Every. Single. Container.
Do you know what is practical?
Cash is practical. You can consign all of those clothes and used household goods you were going to send and donate that money instead. Organize a garage sale, plan a Tupperware party or set up a pop-up bake shop and send a check or PayPal from the proceeds to a reputable charity.
An alternative to sending money? Call local shelters, churches, or charities and ask them what they need. Then send those items... and only those items. Blankets, toiletry kits, diapers, cots, and other basic necessities are often needed. Shipping can be costly, mail and freight service will be delayed and limited, and 3/4 of the city is completely inaccessible by ground transportation. This is a great idea, and you can skip the shipping cost if you live in states that are set up for drop offs.
Do keep in mind that many non-profits will provide clothing and essential items, or vouchers for victims to purchase what they need. Your money would be well spent. And in my experience, giving choices, even small ones like what deodorant to buy, restores a little dignity and feeling of control. It also stimulates the local economy which is desperately needed after a catastrophic event like Harvey.
So, to recap, DO NOT SEND CLOTHES. Or toys. Or stuffed animals. Or random stuff. Or non-random stuff that has not specifically been requested. Just don't.
It's a kind gesture, but not a helpful one. And I know how desperately y'all want to help.
If you are seeking an easy and practical place to donate, start here. Babies need diapers.
If you're interested in doing some research on the integrity of a non-profit before you donate, check here.
If you want to donate on a micro level to small churches or charities who are working directly with displaced families and using 100% of the donations for the victims, ask Houstonians for recommendations.
Let's help Houston as they begin the unimaginable hard work of rebuilding.
What are your favorite organizations to support? Link in comments!