(written for the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence blog)
As the former director of a small women’s shelter, I know that the holidays stir our need to be give and be generous with families who are struggling. Now that Christmas has passed, people are cleaning out the old to make room for all their new gifts, and wondering… what shall I do with all my used, but good quality, things?
Donating to a shelter may seem like a good idea, however, not all donations are created equal. Further, while those of us ‘in the business’ are familiar with the true needs of a working shelter, feel free to send your generous, well-meaning friends a link to this blog post.
Here are ten things that will really make a difference to families living in shelter.
1. Gas Cards. Mobility is crucial to staying safe and finding a new home and a job. Public transportation is not always available and can be unpredictable. Being able to arrive on time for a job interview makes a world of difference to a woman.
2. New underwear and socks. Let’s face it, used underwear is gross, even if it is clean. Shelters always need these items. Imagine how much better kids will feel having clean underwear and socks on when they go to school.
3. Toiletries. Little personal items that you may take for granted. There are lots of small toiletry items that most of us use each week that make our lives bearable: tweezers, sewing kits, hair ties, toe-nail clippers, Q-tips, and make-up. These are always in short supply at shelters and women really appreciate them.
4. Hats, mittens and scarves for adults and children. Our shelter used to go through so many of these because every new family arriving needs them, week after week, through the cold months. Standing at a bus stop without your extremities covered is miserable and dangerous.
5. Journals. Some women write in journals as a way to process trauma, and shelters would love to be able to provide them to anyone who needs one.
6. Diapers. Women with babies know how expensive diapers are these day. According to the National Diaper Bank Network, diapers can cost $70 to $80 per month per child. Unfortunately, when mothers do not have enough diapers, they are forced to ration them, creating health concerns for babies. Shelters run on very tight budgets so donating diapers helps everyone.
7. Feminine Protection. I know this makes people squeamish, but it is a constant need at a women’s shelter.
8. Winter boots. It used to break my heart to see little kids walk out to the bus stop in flip flops in the snow. Having warm feet is a luxury most of us take for granted. The best way to buy boots for a shelter is to call them and see what sizes would be helpful to the families currently living there.
9. School Supplies. By December, most of the schools supplies donated to shelters back in August have run out. However, when new children arrive at the shelter, they may need basic supplies like notebooks, pencils and backpacks.
10. Gift cards to grocery stores. Gift cards can be a blessing for families who need special items but do not have any money. For example: over the counter medication. Shelters rarely give out over the counter medicine because it is a liability, even if the product is donated and un-opened. Gift cards are great for moms who need infant Tylenol for their sick child.
You may have noticed what I did not include on this list: used clothes and toys. The truth is that most shelters and families living in them do not need stuffed animals, old jeans, out-dated dresses, and your collection of McDonald toys. Further, neither the shelter nor the residents have the room to store them. Shelters will politely take these… but they do not want them. A thrift shop is much better place for these donations.
Lastly, as mentioned in number eight, the best way to make sure your gifts and donations will make an impact is to call the shelter directly. It may turn out that what they need most is a new microwave for residents to share.