Wednesday, 27 April 2011

A local impact, a global fingerprint

People routinely drop off bags of clothing on the loading dock at the Texas County Food Pantry, with the idea in mind that the items they leave behind can be sold in the Pantry thrift store.

And rightly so - many donated items are in fact sold in the non-profit, non-government organization's retail store. But little do they know that a t-shirt they donate might become a favorite of an underprivileged person in Africa, a pair of shoes they give away might become much-appreciated footwear of a disaster victim in Haiti, or a pair of blue jeans that no longer fit might end up as part of a dollar bill that eventually finds its way into their own wallet.

Such scenarios may sound far-fetched, but they're made possible through a connection with Remains, Inc., a St. Louis company that recycles tons of used clothing, shoes, belts, purses and even stuffed animals collected from charitable organizations.
Some of the items received at Remains are deemed worthy of being shipped overseas for use by disaster survivors or citizens of third-world countries. Others are broken down and used in the making of many different products, including insulation, industrial cleaning rags and sound-deadening material in car dashboards. Items made of 100-percent cotton are shredded for use in making paper, while blue jean denim is used in creating paper currency.

"The recycling program is our way of going green and helping the environment," Pantry thrift store manager Debbie Malchert said. "We're able to take things we can't use or have too much of and pass them along to people who have need of them. We have zero waste on the clothing and textile items that are donated to us."
Remains' existence solves the problem of what to do with the massive amount of extra clothing the Pantry takes in on a monthly basis. When the Pantry's John Randall takes the company truck on its periodical trip to St. Louis, it's not unusual for it to be loaded with more than three tons of clothing.

"Our main suppliers are institutions that get donations," Remains director of operations Paul Wight said. "We process around 40,000 pounds a day; reusable items are exported and go all over the world and recycled items are used by many different companies for many purposes. We probably landfill only about five-percent of what comes through here."
Shirts, sweaters, pants and other clothing items taken in by the Food Pantry that aren't chosen for sale in the thrift store are compacted by a baling machine into cube-shaped piles and then placed on pallets for shipment. Shoes, purses, belts and stuffed animals are packed separately.

Remains, which began operation in the early 1980s and has been involved in recycling since 1994, pays a per-pound fee for items taken in, which more than pays for the Pantry truck's trip to St. Louis and back. The Pantry's Remains receipt from March showed 5,788 pounds of clothing, 465 pounds of shoes and 107 pounds of stuffed animals.
"Most people think that when they donate a bag of clothing, that's the end of it," Wight said. "But people who work in a place that gets donations realize that there's only so much you can use. Then what do you do with the rest? You could donate to another charity, but most places get enough stuff and they don't want another place's leftovers.

"So you either pitch it, or you find a place like us where someone will find a new home for it. We go through everything we get and try to find a market for it all."

Items that Malchert and her team decide to keep are either displayed in the thrift store or systematically stored in the Pantry's warehouse. Freshly donated clothing is inspected by sorter Mary Katherine Collins, while stored clothes are displayed on a seasonal basis. Collins does her job at the Pantry via the Experience Works program, but said she would be there in any case.

"If I didn't qualify financially to be work under Experience Works, I would come here and work anyway," Collins said. "I love what they do here."
The thrift store is restocked with all types of items every Friday afternoon. Malchert points out that it's important for donors to be considerate when leaving items on the Pantry loading dock.

"We appreciate all donations, but we like things we get to be in sellable condition," she said. "I've come here in the morning in the summer and found the loading dock completely full of stuff. It takes an extreme amount of time to go through it all, and it's really a shame when a lot of it turns out to be broken or unusable.

"We can sort through it - and we will - but it sure helps when we get things that don't have to just be thrown out."

Not everything the thrift store sells is used, but Malchert tries to insure that even used items are of desirable quality.

"Sometimes businesses will shut down and donate new items, and we get new things from other sources, too," Malchert said. "But we have increased our focus on making sure that we only put good quality things out, used or new. With the limited space we have here, we simply can't use everything we take in, so we try to keep the best for our customers."
Malchert, a Cabool resident who has been with the Food Pantry about 3 ½ years, has helped see to it that the Pantry thrift store is a clean, organized place to shop, and recently added fixtures (including tall glass display cases) have improved its overall appearance. But she's also out to dispel misconceptions about the store and spread the news that it's open to everyone.

"I've heard people say they didn't even know the thrift store was there and others who think it's only for low income people," Malchert said. "But it's open to the general public. We have lots of good clothes, furniture, household items and other things to offer."
A large thrift store sign recently added to the front of the Pantry building is also helping more people realize the store exists.

The thrift store is annually involved in three community projects targeting residents in need: a toy giveaway at Christmas, a back-to-school clothing giveaway and a winter coat giveaway. Proceeds generated by thrift shop sales go toward daily Food Pantry operation costs, like utility bills and building repairs.
Malchert receives help from a crew of eight, including regular staff members and volunteers, and sometimes has additional workers on hand who are fulfilling community service obligations.

The Food Pantry thrift store takes cash only. Hours are Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The store is closed on days when Houston schools are closed.

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