Do ‘something awesome’

Do ‘something awesome’ September 4, 2012

The Community Church of the Open Door “did something awesome.” They had a church-wide garage sale. Except at this garage sale, everything was free to anyone in the community who needed it.

The Bangor Daily News‘ Nok-Noi Ricker reported on the event at the Hampden, Maine, church:

Hundreds of items, donated by church and community members, disappeared fast during the free yard sale.

“We started at 9 [a.m.] and we’re pretty much down to nothing and it’s only like 10:30,” said church member Holly Cain, of Dedham.

Cain, her husband, Zach, and fellow organizer Esther Littlefield of Glenburn are on the church’s missions team. Around 20 church volunteers, including 4-year-old Eli Cain, helped to set up tables, display items and help people load the items they selected.

“We hope to make it an annual event,” Littlefield said.

People were so excited about the free yard sale, “We had people already here at 7:30 a.m.,” she said. Some participants offered money for the free items, but their offerings were turned down. The event was not about raising money, it was about giving back to the community, Littlefield said.

I’m hoping they do make this an annual event — and maybe even figure a way to partner with the local Goodwill Industries of Northern New England (there’s a shop just up the road from the church), which provides a similar service for the community while also providing employment and employment training for people who need that too.

Hemant Mehta says this church’s cool event “falls under the category of ‘Things Christians Do That Atheists Need to Copy.'”

I’d say it may even fall under the category of Things People Do That Everyone Needs to Copy.

My old buddy Dwight Ozard and I used to collect every story we could find of efforts like this, every example of people doing “something awesome.” We hoped that by sharing those stories, we could encourage others to copy them, replicate those ideas and efforts elsewhere and multiply their effects like loaves and fishes.*

Maybe we should start doing that here — collecting stories of awesome things that anyone, anywhere might be able to copy. Some of those might be Big Things that it might take some resources or expertise to pull off. Others might be tiny-seeming smaller things that don’t require any of either.

Part of the point, though, is that there are tons of things we can do that don’t require permission. We can do things that don’t require the approval of 60 senators, or of the platform committee of the national party, or of any elected officials, referees, blue-ribbon panels or boards of deacons. And those things can matter. Those things can be awesome.

So, OK then, might as well start with this one:

No. 1 Yard Sale Giveaway

Here’s that Maine church’s description of their “Great Giveaway!” event:

Hundreds of donated items will be given away, on a first-come, first-served basis, to individuals and families in need. From books and games to appliances; housewares and furniture to clothing; everything must go and everything is FREE! Whether you’ve items to share or items to find, bring your family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers … for this community outreach.

… To donate new or gently used and clean items of any kind, bring items to CCOD to be stored until the event (call ahead to be sure someone is here), OR deliver items on the day of the event to the CCOD parking lot, no later than 8-9AM. Please, sort your donations of clothing or shoes and mark them for adults or children. Be sure that no donated item is missing parts or in disrepair.

So the basic steps there seem to be:

1. Collect stuff to give away;

2. Advertise the give-away; and

3. Give the stuff away as advertised.

Not too complicated. The complicating factors might include finding a place to store the “inventory” while it’s being collected, and finding a large, accommodating site for the giveaway itself (that bit probably will require asking permission).

The other potentially complicating factor is what is sometimes politely called “The Garage-Sale Community,” also known as Big Flea Market. You don’t want to collect stuff for the giveaway only to have some professional flea marketeer back up a truck and clear everything out in order to go resell it all elsewhere. I think most members of The Garage-Sale Community will respect the spirit of an event like this and allow people in need first dibs — most, but maybe not all.

Still though, a small group of friends, co-workers, classmates, teammates, regulars, fans, gamers, church-members or gang-members could pull off an event like this with a modicum of effort and enthusiasm. It could be, you know, kind of awesome.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* We even put together a series of seminars focusing on such local, small-scale efforts by young people all over the country. That was back in the mid-1990s, when younger people were being derided as “slackers” by an older generation who saw our failure to march on Washington as confirmation of some supposed apathy.

As a dig at the “why, when we were your age …” complaints from those fogies I suggested naming our seminar “Slacker Activism.”

“Ooh,” Dwight said. “How about just … slacktivism.”

“That’s a terrible name,” I said.

“It’s awesome.”

“It’s cheesy.”

“Yeah … so cheesy that it’s awesome.”

Dwight won. Turns out he made a new word, even if it didn’t wind up meaning quite what we meant by it.

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  • Jim Roberts

    Our church does a quarterly clothing swap. I don’t know why we call it a “swap” because, really, it’s pretty much just a bunch of people bringing stuff and a second bunch of people taking stuff away. There’s a handful of us in the middle bringing in undersized clothes and looking for stuff for our kids, but among us there’s a conscious effort to leave with less than you came with.

    The last time, the organizer, who’s heavily involved in entrepreneurship for women, arranged to have a rack of women’s professional clothes available. Rather nice stuff, too, not cheap knock-offs or old outfits reeking of camphor.

  • Jessica_R

    I call stuff like this “single candles”, as in the great saying “It is better to light a single candle than curse the darkness.” I’m a non believer so I definitely need my faith in humanity buffered every now and then. I’m off to work now, when I get back I’ll post some stories like this I’ve found. 

  • Gruther4

    Our city has been doing something like that for some time now:

  • What about freecycle instead. Saves making a big show of your giving. Something I think the founder of this church organisation recommended.

  • B

    Because if you’re trying to give free things to people who may not have a lot of money, the Internet probably isn’t the way to do it?

  • Hemant Mehta says this church’s cool event “falls under the category of ‘Things Christians Do That Atheists Need to Copy.’”

    Quick news flash for Hemant: we already do stuff like that.

  • Keith

    One of these does happen already near my home regularly. There is also a “free store” that has been run by volunteers for decades.

  • Richard Hershberger

    Here is something along the same lines, but with a permanent facility, and specifically for books:

  • SW

    I’ve seen this happen in Carrboro, NC, run by the friendly neighborhood anarchists.  The problem I saw was that a few people would gather up a whole lot of what was available (like most of the clothing).   I have no idea what they did with it afterwards.

    There also was a kind of covetousness that I wasn’t ok with.   And a clear divide between those who had money and could afford to give away good stuff (college students, mostly), and the people who took stuff away, who were mostly the working poor of the area. 

    I think it would work best in a community or among friends, or on a regular basis so there’s less need to hoard.

  • LoneWolf343

     “And a clear divide between those who had money and could afford to give
    away good stuff (college students, mostly), and the people who took
    stuff away, who were mostly the working poor of the area.”

    What, did you rather that the people who did have stuff take it?

  • B

     I had similar experiences with the Really Free Market in Carrboro when I was living near there a few years back.  It seemed like the moment someone showed up with stuff, people swooped in and grabbed everything immediately. 

    I mean, I wanted to get rid of the stuff and if people needed it, I want them to have it, but it created a sort of weird atmosphere.

  • I’m aware! I’ve posted about them many times!

  • Jessica_R

    Okay some examples: 

    Kids can do more than irritate the hell out of me at the checkout lane,

    Putting on your best for school,

    The secret treasures of NYC’s garbage,

    You are all what you can leave behind,

    Turning an old Wal-Mart into a beautiful library,

    The people in your neighborhood,

    Does what it says on the tin,

    The secret restorers,

    We are the authors of our stories,

  • Matt Dick

    Yes, it kind of takes all the magic out of it when this jerk shows off that to them it’s more of a protest against atheists than it is something from their own heart.  I was so touched and gratified and inspired by this event until this phrase, and now I just have the instinct to tell them to screw off.  Giving away stuff you don’t need anymore isn’t a substitute for being a good person.

  • My dad told me once that he used to organise surprise Easter egg hunts in the town he lived in. He and his friends would pick a random park, hide a bunch of chocolate eggs, then when they were done, find a phonebooth and call into the radio station, telling them what park they’d hidden the easter eggs at.

    They stopped doing it because people started circling around every park in town at 5am, waiting for the people who hid the easter eggs so they could follow along behind and beat everyone else to them.

  • EK

    I would add a word of caution to anyone hoping to organize such an event for the first time – not to dissuade you, far from it, but just to give you the benefit of the experience of a friend of mine.  She has organized several such events, and according to her, there’s always a certain subset of the population who thinks “Hey, the poor don’t have much, so obviously they would be grateful to receive my old torn-up couch that’s infested with bed bugs and smells of cat piss and vomit.  After all, I’m giving it to them for free!”

    I suspect that what these people are actually thinking, at least subconsciously, is something more like “I can’t be bothered to haul the damn thing to the dump, and if I give it to this garage sale, then I don’t have to pay the dumping fee and I can pretend I’m being charitable!”.   Regardless, the net effect was that my friend frequently ended up having to spend half her time and energy just separating the useful donations from the dross, and then had to pay out of her own pocket to dump the junk.

    There are probably various creative ways of dealing with that problem, but I figured I should at least mention it.

  • Mary Kaye

    One strategy that has worked for small Pagan giveaway events is a rule that if you bring it and no one wants it, you have to take it home.  I don’t know how that would scale up, though.

    It may be that item-disposal is itself a community need–if you are short of money and energy, unwanted objects can become a serious burden.  Some local stores do occasional garbage-riddance days in which they will take certain classes of garbage off your hands for free–styrofoam and lightbulbs, say, or computer monitors and TVs.  This is a real service both to the people unloading the stuff and to the environment.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    You’re spot on, EK. It’s really distressing, actually, to know how much refuse people dump on charities. I work with several different major charities whose annual cleanup bill for things people dump in donation bins is in the tens of thousands of dollars. Not just old, torn clothes and broken toys but soiled mattresses, shitty nappies, dead cats…the average person includes a lot of selfish jerks.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart


    In my experience a lot of people (leaving aside those I referred to in my previous post) want to do something to help others but the legwork involved is a deterent. Even if it’s a little bit.

    For example, there are a whole bunch of charity clothing bins in my city, mostly at shopping centres where people go past them on a regular basis. However, they’re often full (or people don’t want to risk their quality donation being ruined by the soiled stuff someone might throw in on top), and driving to one of the charity’s offices during work hours is that bit of effort that means that most people don’t follow through on their good intentions.

    So I and a few friends have set up boxes at our workplaces and let people know they can leave anything they want to donate there, and we take the boxes to the charities when they’re full. I’ve collected heaps of donations that way as colleagues clean out their wardrobes from time to time. One group even decided to knit new scarves and beanies for the box, which was lovely. They made a team social activity of it.

    Similarly, plenty of people have furniture they’re happy to donate but don’t have a truck or trailer, and neither do the people who could use the free furniture. So a few friends of mine act as “middle men” on the odd weekend, picking up fridges from one place and dropping them off to another.

  • Kids can do more than irritate the hell out of me at the checkout lane

    Don’t read the comments. It’s a wonderful story of human compassion… and then a reminder that Sturgeon’s Law applies to people too.

  • Tom

    Hemant Mehta says this church’s cool event “falls under the category of ‘Things Christians Do That Atheists Need to Copy.’”

    -Ugh!  Talking of tribalism.

    I think there’s a whole bunch of Christians that might also need to copy it.

  • Danivon

    Matt Dick, Tom…

    You do realise that Hemant Mehta is an atheist, right? The first link in Fred’s post is to his blog, ‘The Friendly Atheist’.

    So cool your jets…

  • Senormedia

     The final post-script seems as if it should be read in Paul Harvey’s voice: “and now you know…the rest of the story.”

  • AnonymousPoster

    Yeah, to target  Hemant Mehta just a bit more, atheists already do stuff like that.  Look at Goodwill stores (the secular version of Salvation Army shops, which is admittedly for charge, but cheap).  Look at freecycle, or large portions of Craig’s List, or a host of other things.  Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if a handful of atheists showed up to drop items off in the example above.  And admittedly, these aren’t atheist specific, they’re merely secular.  But then, that’s part of the atheist creedo anyways for a lot of people: it’s possible to be a good person without a god forcing you to be.  In fact, if the ONLY reason you’re good is to get into heaven – what does that really say about you?

    I’m also reminded of an amazing example that restored my faith in humanity a while back, I want to say it was in the Buffalo NY area, a church had been doing christmas meal drive-and-serves for some years, but the members were getting too old to make it happen, and couldn’t attract any youngin’s.  So a local muslim group started helping them out, saying they were happy to help and didn’t really have Xmas plans anyways.  This was, as I recall, a story back when the NYC Muslim sponsored community center was being ‘debated’.  And it really reminded me that good can come from anywhere and everywhere, if only you’re willing to look and accept what you find.  And that it’s maybe worth remembering where it came from when you decide to be mad at a big group.

  • Guest

    Our church had a block party a couple weeks ago, the awesomest something being a school shoe giveaway. Here’s the PR:

    What a blessing the “Back to School Event” at Park UMC on Monday night turned out to be. Dinner was served (for free!), face painting was done, we had popcorn and sno-cones, and 128 children received a new pair of shoes to start the school year off on the right foot! It was so exciting, some of these children had never had “new” shoes in their life!   
     The Bloomington Public Library “book-bike” visited and the kids got to chose what books they wanted and they got to keep them. This program not only helps children and adults who may not be able to afford books, it also helps the libray distribute books they no longer need.
    Park distributed 77 sets of bags of food equaling almost 200 meals, plus 320 hotdogs and 250 sno-cones were consumed. Thanks to all who donated or volunteered for this event.

  • Jim Roberts

    There’s a difference between “making a big show” of something and advertising it, and the difference isn’t all that fine.

    And, as mentioned downthread, the Internet is a less than entirely helpful tool for getting the stuff to the neediest of the needy.

  • Tricksterson

    At our Local Pagan Pride events the entry fee is in food whioch goes to a food bank.

  • MaryKaye

    Maybe we could collect techniques that make this sort of good deed work out better in practice.  Asking for one or two cans of food works well around here, too, and is very common in several different communities.  I think it doesn’t attract dumpers or hoarders because the amounts are small.  You could try “Bring one thing, take one thing”? 

    For swap meets, it seems to help if there are folks around all the time, which suggests keeping the operating hours fairly short.   The folks who sweep in and take everything tend to operate in the off hours and not to want company, in my experience.

    My neighborhood leaves free stuff out on the planting strip all the time–I just got a bookcase that way–but that tends to help only locals, as there’s no way to find out except by passing by.  It does help avoid the dumping problem, though, because if you put things out and they aren’t taken, you’ll eventually have to deal with them or get a ticket.  Maybe a “put things out in front of your house” day in a particular neighborhood?

  • latheguy

    Maybe if the atheists had a large building that paid no taxes, and could write off any contributions, they could publicize something like this also.  Our local pagan groups do similar things all the time, but recieve no free publicity.  Overall, churches do more harm than good.

  • LL

    Doesn’t this church know that giving away stuff for free fosters dependence and creates generations of lazy, no-job-having welfare queens? 

  • Matt Dick

    Gah!  No,  I didn’t see that.   That changes things entirely.  Yes, this is exactly the kind of thing that atheists should copy.

    Excuse me while I go rearrange my thoughts on this story.  Thanks for the heads-up!

  • B

     “Similarly, plenty of people have furniture they’re happy to donate but
    don’t have a truck or trailer, and neither do the people who could use
    the free furniture. So a few friends of mine act as “middle men” on the
    odd weekend, picking up fridges from one place and dropping them off to

    Yep, when I was there the Habitat for Humanity thrift store in Durham, NC had *lots* of great used furniture, appliances, etc. for sale, and I suspect one of the reasons they got so much nice stuff was that they would pick up furniture donations for free.  (How they dealt with people wanting seedy stuff that wasn’t worth re-selling picked up I’m not sure.)   So donating furniture was fairly painless.

    It was also easy to buy stuff there because they would deliver furniture to the local area (although there was a charge for that).  Still, it meant you didn’t need a truck and a few friends to get your new used sofa into your apartment.

  • Huh! I took the trouble to launder all the clothes I put into the donation bin when I was cleaning out my wardrobe.

  • Atheist or Christian, I still think it’s a problematic statement.  Why would atheists “copy” something some Christians are doing, when we already do charitable things?  And I just don’t like the use of the word “copy,” as though Christians invented charity.  Just no.

  • MaryKaye

    Yeah, I’d be a lot happier with “This is a great idea.  More people should do this.”  Or at most, “This is a great idea.  I think my local community should do this.”   Why bring tribes into it at all?

    But it’s less problematic coming from an atheist than it would be coming from a Christian, because tooting your own horn is problematic, and at least it’s not that.

  • Kiba

    There are a couple of stores in my area that do stuff like that. The local Kroger store has a barrel inside where you can put your old plastic shopping bags for recycling and the local Best Buy has assorted bins for old light bulbs, phones, and computer parts.

    And just recently a company has put out bins in various places where people can take old clothes and shoes, the stuff that can’t to charities because it’s more hole than cloth, for recycling instead of having it go to the landfill. 

  • Afisher

    Our town does this every year- it’s run by the Recycling Committee. There’s not a storage problem, since people drop things off and pick them up the same day.

    There is a potential problem with retailers, so if someone looks like they’re cherry-picking a lot of stuff, they have to show an ID that proves they are a town resident. There’s also a problem with people trying to drop stuff off that’s inappropriate, like computers and TVs and other electronics; the volunteers have to make sure that doesn’t happen.

    Still, all in all, it’s a wonderful resource and a pretty fun time!