Woman questions charity's policy

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Monday, November 15, 2010
— Suzette Pierce's sport utility vehicle was full of items she said were donated to a local nonprofit thrift shop but she found thrown away in trash containers outside.

The leather boots, clothing, purses, bedding and shoes—including a pair of New Balance running shoes—appeared to be in good condition.

Pierce believes the Mercy Health System Association of Volunteers that operates Castaways Thrift Shop, 922 Milton Ave., is throwing away good, usable items that people donated to help others.

Pierce said she's been salvaging the items and giving them to churches, charities and the homeless. Some items are in such nice condition, she said, she's kept them for herself, her family and co-workers.

Marie Bilek, director of volunteers at Castaways, said the thrift store does not throw away items that can be sold.

"Not everything donated to Castaways or any other like organization is serviceable and can be put out in our store. I can't imagine any of my volunteers would throw away any New Balance shoes. We would never throw out anything we can sell," she said.

Because of questions raised from Pierce's concerns, however, Castaways has decided to re-evaluate its procedures and speak with the organizations to which Castaways already donates unsold items.

"If they would like the things we put in the Dumpsters," she said, "they're more than welcome."

Bilek said details about how things will change still need to be worked out.

Angela Smillie, whose backyard fence is 8 feet from the trash container, said she saw Pierce pulling items out of the Dumpsters about 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31.

"I took the dogs out just before trick-or-treaters, and her comment to me was, ‘I've only gone through one Dumpster, and look at all the stuff I've got,"' Smillie said.

Smillie said Pierce isn't the only Dumpster diver at Castaways.

"I saw another gentleman yesterday," she said last week.

Smillie said she regularly sees a woman and her children pull items from the locked containers.

Pierce showed a Gazette reporter items in her vehicle she said came from the containers outside Castaways and said she was on her way to deliver all of it to Rock Assembly of God Church for its monthly giveaway. The rest was going to her granddaughter, a friend or co-workers, she said.

She spoke rapidly as she pulled items from boxes and bags to show what she said she'd salvaged.

"Where's the stain? Why'd they throw this away? I don't see the stain. What's wrong with these shoes? Why would you throw away shoes like this?" she said.

"Why? Why? You see why I get upset. Look at these! You're telling me they're no good? Can't the men's shelter use these?" she asked, dropping a pair of work boots onto the pavement.

Mercy disagrees

"The truth is, we don't throw hardly anything away," Bilek said.

"The things we throw away are either ripped, smell from too much smoke or a lot of them have body fluids or urine on them. Sometimes stuff comes in, and we just have to close the bags up and throw them away it is so horrible," she said.

Castaways accepts everything but appliances and computers, and nearly 100 volunteers donate hundreds of hours to the shop each year.

Proceeds from the sale of items at the thrift store are donated to charity.

"Donations come in; we price it, and it goes out," Bilek said.

"We work real hard, and our prices are lower than anybody else in town."

Donated items that don't sell are sent to Rock Assembly of God Church for its monthly giveaway, to a food pantry in Beloit that gives away clothes and to residents at House of Mercy homeless center, Bilek said.

Donated items that don't quickly sell are marked at half price. What still doesn't sell gets boxed and donated to charity.

"We could sell what's left over, but we don't have the room. So instead, we donate the clothes to (Rock) Assembly of God, and the knickknacks we usually take to Goodwill," Bilek said.

Dumpster diving

Pierce, 64, Janesville, also an employee of Mercy, said she uses mechanical "grabbers" to pull items from the locked Dumpsters. She pulled up her sleeves to show bruises she said were caused by reaching over the metal sides.

Her intent, she said, is to get thrown-away items to people in need and to keep the items out of the landfill.

"It's got to stop. We've all got to pool together and get homes for this clothing and bedding," Pierce said.

She was upset, she said, because her vehicle was filled and she had to leave behind a half-full Dumpster.

Pierce said she pulls what she can from the Dumpsters on Sunday nights before they are emptied Monday. She said police told her it's not against the law, but Janesville Police Sgt. Brian Donohoue disagreed.

"You can't go on private property and Dumpster dive. She can't do that without permission. That's trespassing," Donohoue said.

Pierce said she's confronted shop volunteers and pleaded with Bilek to stop throwing away clothes.

"If they don't have the room or time, I want to donate them. But they just don't seem to care," she said.

Bilek said Mercy does care.

Castaways in the past nine years generated more than $500,000 in proceeds, which was donated to scholarships, Mercy Hospital, House of Mercy, Hospitality House and Wigs for Patients, she said.

"All of our money stays in Janesville," she said.

Castaways, she said, "is nothing but a positive situation—for people who buy, the places we donate money to and the volunteers who enjoy working there."


Castaways is one of several charity-based thrift stores in Janesville. Here are the policies of two others:

Salvation Army Thrift Store, 1819 Center Ave.

"We basically don't throw anything away," said Brian Coffey, manager.

Exceptions include broken items.

"If someone can use or wear it, we don't throw it away."

Smelly, moldy or tattered clothing gets baled and sold in bulk, Coffey said.

Sorters—either volunteers or people enrolled in Salvation Army programs who receive housing, food and a small per diem—sort donations. After three weeks on the sale floor, the prices for the items are cut in half. During the fourth week, their prices are reduced 75 percent. Unsold items get moved to another Salvation Army thrift store in the Janesville area hub.

"Anything that doesn't get sold by the Salvation Army ends up in a poor country," Coffey said.

Goodwill Store & Donation Center, 2003 Holiday Drive

"We never throw anything away here, especially clothing," said Sean Quali, retail coordinator.

Items that are "obviously broken" are thrown away, but "no clothing goes in the garbage," Quali said.

Surplus Goodwill donations are sent to Goodwill's hub in Kenosha for redistribution to other Goodwill stores, but Quali said the local Goodwill store could use more donated items.

"We don't get enough donations in to send things out," he said.

Last updated: 3:35 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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