Saturday, July 11, 2009

Refugees, furniture and toys. Part Two.

Greetings! A few months ago someone asked me for advice on running the furniture program of a refugee center. I agreed to provide advice and since then have been blogging away. My hope since that time has been to try and post something each week that might help someone who is put in the position I was put in. I've also included information on Burma and Burmese refugees because, with a background in Asian studies, I had a natural interest in their culture. Not only does Burma border China, but a lot of its minority peoples actually live in China as well as Burma with their cultures overlapping the border. I've studied Chinese minorities and their situation.Thus the interest was natural. Truth be told, however, it is important to remember that there are many other kinds of refugees besides Burmese refugees. While at the center I tried to treat all people equally, or at least if favoritism was given then to show it to people who had helped me out, and not by nationality.

As for the postings, some weeks I've succeeded in my goals, other weeks I have not.

This week I return again to the subject of what to do with toys and offered donations of toys in a refugee center.

When I was hired to run the furniture program at the local refugee center, I was literally thrown into the job without a word of explanation or instruction. Although the manager had told me to meet with her at 1:00pm on my first day, when I arrived she announced she was busy and could not meet me. I waited an hour, then found another important person and asked if he thought it would be a good idea for me to start trying to straighten out the back store room where furniture and other material goods were kept. This was in October and he said that no one had bothered to really try to do that since the summer. Apparently during the summer one of the unpaid interns had taken it upon herself to keep the storeroom clean but after she'd left, at the end of her internship, people had let it fall into chaos again.

So I began trying to make sense of the chaotic pile of stuff that was the refugee furniture supplies, the refugee office supplies, boxes of refugee records, the refugee kitchen supplies and the other miscellaneous odds and ends that had been acquired and allowed to accumulate over the past year and a half. I did this for three hours at which point the manager finally found time to meet with me. She then spent five minutes basically telling me that it was good that I had done whatever I had been doing and that I should find ways to get furniture. She also said that if I had any concerns or ideas she'd be glad to discuss them later. (However, like most of her commitments, this was a lie. Most attempts at communication were treated with the same respect as our first meeting.)

Among the things I discovered were piles and bags of toys. As stated in the last post on furniture, although many people like to give toys to the refugee center, a refugee center is legally required to follow guidelines provided by the State Department. These guidelines specify that all refugees be given some material goods, goods such as a small selection of furniture taken from a list, but there is no requirement that the center give out toys.

We had too many it turned out and the problem was made worse when I accepted more before I learned to do my job right.

Therefore, odd as it may seem, I will now discuss how to get rid of excess toys. There are times when one must clean out excessive things from the store room in order to make way for the things that are needed.

Here's some ways to get rid of toys:

1. Toss them in the garbage. (Of course, if you have a large quantity then you need a special trash bin like an industrial size dumpster. Our landlord, in an attempt to get the center to stop abusing his facilities and keep their commitments to him, had, interestingly enough, prohibited the center from using his industrial trash dumpster which lay behind the building. This is another story which I will share another day.) Therefore tossing them out in quantities of more than a bag at a time was not possible. Besides throwing away useful things eats at my sense of Yankee frugality and I hate to do it. There's some things that cannot be disposed of in a normal manner. For instance someone somewhere had once accepted a four foot cubed children's playhouse with a little slide on the side. It was pretty sturdy and made of solid plastic but for whatever reason it just never seemed like something worth giving away at any given time. What I found really kind of funny was when one Burmese Chin woman referred to it as a "duck house," assuming that it was for raising ducks. And before one asks, no she did not have a suitable place or lifestyle to begin raising ducks.

2. Give them away. This took research. Should you have unopened good toys then you may give them to the Toys for Tots program. This is the toy drive that the US Marine Corp Reserve holds each year. However, they will not take any toys that are already opened or used.

Other organizations will take working second hand toys, including the Salvation Army, Goodwill and others. Ask around. Of course, this requires networking. Networking is a good thing (although if your boss is incompetent it might make her nervous when she sees you are discussing who knows what with outside agencies.)

3. Broken toys, I learned, are taken by the Albany Police Athletic League who will do their best to fix them up and find them a good home. Now, interestingly enough, I learned this from, of all people, the local Regional Food Bank. How does the food bank know this? The food bank is an amazing institution that deals with much, much more than food. Among their many agreements and arrangements is a regional agreement with Wal-Mart corporation. When people return something to Wal-Mart and the item looks usable but not able to be reshelved, then Wal-Mart gives the item to the regional food bank who then have volunteers give it a look over. If, for instance, Wal-Mart should give them two sets of identical toys that are missing different parts but can be combined to form one useable toy, then the food bank will give it to the Police Athletic League. The Police Athletic Leaque will then do the mixing and matching. (I was amazed when I learned this! Truth be told I learned it long after I left the center while volunteering one day with the Cornell alumni group at the food bank. I'd been trying to figure out for months what was the best use for broken toys.)

4. If you wish you may hold an event and give them away there. Once in a great while the center would hold special events, like a Halloween party for refugee kids. You can use them there. (Should anyone ask the Halloween party was put together by a dedicated volunteer who did much more than could reasonably be expected from her in many vital areas. Therefore when she wanted to also organize a Halloween party and was willing to put together all the work by herself, no one could possibly say no. In fact, the only criticism I have of her Halloween party is that she did not give away enough toys. In fact, she said she could not find several bags of them. --things like the bag of three inch tall GI Joe action figures with no hats or guns, but clean and washed, or McDonalds happy meal prizes, little plastic cars, etc. We had bags of this kind of stuff and no real idea of what to do with it.)

So that's a bit about what to do with toys that accumulate in the refugee center. There's more that can be said on the subject, and I'll do my best to say it later. Meanwhile feel free to ask questions if you'd like through the comment section.


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