Thursday, July 2, 2009

Refugees, furniture and toys. Part One.

I started this blog for several reasons. One is that I am a writer. Writers write. That's what we do. And, yes, it can be a terrible thing, resulting in great personal inconvenience, loss of income, interpersonal problems, yet despite this we continue. And although there are countless writers' workshops dotting the country here and there, to the best of my knowledge, all of these writers' workshops actually are designed to encourage writers to write rather than to get them to stop.

Unlike alcoholics we have no twelve step programs, we have no sponsors, we have no hotlines to encourage us to cease, desist and never return to our troublesome behavior. There is, alas, no one out there to organize interventions for us and say, for instance, "Pete, your writing sucks. You're not all that clever. Shouldn't you be spending your time improving your financial management skills, checking the oil in your car or even just getting out and interacting with ordinary people, and, quite frankly, Pete, how many hours over how many years have you spent on this writing thing and what, really, do you have to show for it anyway?"

So that's one reason. Addiction to using the written English language to overshare with strangers.

But there's another reason too. There really are many, many aspects of working with refugees that to the best of my knowledge are not publicly shared. And more people should understand them. It is my hope that with this knowledge workers can learn from both my mistakes and successes and that the newly arrived refugees can be better cared for.

As stated, I worked running the furniture program. This was a half-time position, although like most everyone else at the refugee center I worked many, many unpaid hours. Like most everything else at the refugee center, when I came on board the furniture program was a mess. My plan was to put in a great deal of time on my own, get patterns and procedures in place so that things would work better after I left and then move on to something else that paid better or was at least full time.

During that time I learned a lot and I made a lot of mistakes.

Which in a rambling way brings me to the topic of today, donation and distribution of toys.

Refugee centers operate under guidelines put in place by the United States State Department. They are legally obligated to provide each and every newly arrived refugees with certain essentials. They are given a list of these items. For instance, each refugee is required to be provided with a chair, a bed and a few other pieces of furniture.

If the center cannot obtain these items through donation then it is legally obligated to acquire them through other means, including purchase.

Often people donate these required items, which is nice, but often they also donate items to the refugee center that the center is not legally obligated to provide to refugees. Among these items are toys.

Refugee centers have no legal obligation to provide toys for children. On the other hand, people love to donate toys for children to the refugee center. This makes sense. Children outgrow toys. Children grow up and move out of their parents' house and the parents wish to get rid of the toys. And some of these are nice and well cared for. People love the idea that their children's favorite toys are now out there in the world still making some other child happy.

And that's nice.

But there really are too many toys out there.

Let me insert an aside. My father's oldest brother was a mechanical engineer and had entered the field for the idealistic reason that he hoped to work to create a world where we could manufacture enough material goods to care for impoverished people everywhere. He would often talk about the cost of items, including children's toys, in terms not of dollars but in terms of hours of work by an average American worker required to earn the wages to purchase the items he was referring to. Using this measure, the cost of toys has gone down considerably over the past few decades. Today in America, there are much too many toys in existence when compared to the number of children around to use them.

Therefore, voluntary redistribution of toys would be a wonderful thing, if, and only if, it does not get in the way of giving people who need essentials, essentials like tables and chairs, the things they really need.

So let's look at the toys using a logical system. Toys, like all other donations, are supposed to flow through the center, going in and then going out.

Toys will:
1) be offered to the center
2) if accepted must be stored by the center
3) then must be removed from the center.

If toys are offered to the center, you have three choices.

First, say "no." There is nothing wrong with saying no to donations, especially if they will impede your operations. Of course, you should strive to say no in a polite and educational way, showing appreciation for the offer and doing your best to guide the (hopefully) well intended donor to a state where they will ultimately offer you something useful (and then feel so good about it that they will tell all their friends to offer you something useful too.)

Second, you can say "yes." Thank them, write a receipt if they wish one (for their taxes or other purpose) and cheerfully send them on their way.

Third, you can say "Yes" and then engage them in conversation to try to solicit items that are more useful than toys. This is what I call "the stone soup" technique. Remember the children's story about the soldiers who announce they will make "stone soup" by putting stones in a big pot of boiling water? And then, once they get everyone in the village interested and involved, encourage them to donate sufficient vegetables and spices to get actual soup? That's sort of what I am talking about. Tell them these toys are great. Tell them they are great. Tell them about the kinds of things you do and how these toys will be so greatly appreciated. Then slide in that what these children and their parents really need is chairs. And then say something like "Hey, you don't by chance know anyone with a few extra kitchen or dining room chairs, now do you?"

At that point you could easily be on your way to getting a useful donation. See, it is a fact that every single middle class or upper middle class person in America knows someone somewhere who has a few extra chairs lying around serving no purpose.

Remember my uncle's goal of creating a world where manufacturing technology could create a world where everybody everywhere had enough stuff? Sadly, we passed that point long ago. We now live in a world where we have too much stuff while a huge number of global residents live in poverty. Sad, isn't it? Well, fortunately, if you run or work for a refugee furniture program then you can be part of the solution. Remember, your job is to go out and find people with too much stuff, get them to give you that extra stuff, do so in such a way so that they feel so good about it that they tell all their friends to give you their extra stuff too, and then give it to people who don't have enough stuff, people like newly arrived refugees.

FOR PART TWO SEE: Refugees, Furniture and Toys, Part Two.

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