For several years, I organized drives through Changing Winds Advocacy Center, a nonprofit Native American civil rights and education organization. In that time, I saw the best and worst ways that people give. Sending clothing and other items directly may seem like a good idea, but not when the items belong in the trash. If sending large amounts of money to organizations that spend as much as 30 and 40 percent on high salaries and fundraising is off-putting, here are other ways to help.
Purchasing wholesale goods online or individual items will save on costs when you are the administrator of your donation, and you will know exactly how your money was spent.
Below are tried and true ways Changing Winds helped. Consider taking on a drive or a cause—all year long. It is gratifying, and easier than you think. The feedback we received always touched us deeply and our donors always knew exactly how they had touched the lives of others.
When Sending Items: Send new clothing if you can afford it. If you must send used, make sure there are no signs of wear—no stains, no frayed cuffs or rings around the collar. Sending goods is intended to uplift people, not to burden them with your cast-offs. As one tribal official said, “We have been made to feel like cast-offs long enough. When people send us old, used, stained clothes, it brings those feelings up.”
Pack Items Like a Gift: Send spotless items freshly laundered, folded and wrapped carefully. We used to tell our donors, you aren’t just sending clothes; you’re sending love. When we heard back from the tribal agencies, they told us, ‘When we opened the packages, we felt the love.’ That is the goal.
How to Reach Tribes: To find out where to send your gifts, go online, find the phone number for the tribe you want to support, and ask them which tribal agency serves the group you want to support.
Serving Children: Sending items to children is popular. Who can resist serving a children’s shelter? There is always a need for diapers, receiving blankets, infant clothing, snow boots, coats, blankets, underwear, jeans and T-shirts, pajamas, arts and crafts materials, for teens as well as the younger children.
Ask for Tribal Social Services, the Indian Child Welfare Agency, or see if the tribe has a women’s, children’s, or domestic violence shelter.
Serving the Elderly: Call the tribe and ask if there is a community center, Community Action Program office, or other area where the elderly regularly congregate. Send clean blankets, warm coats, socks, toiletries, food, even toilet paper; also coloring books and crayons for their grandkids. The elderly often have greater financial pressures because they watch their grandchildren while their own children attend college or go to work. Sugar-free boxes of cookies are especially appreciated.
Serving Tribal Jails: Not many think of supporting tribal jails, but inmates deserve sanitary conditions. According to Darwin Long, a facility administrator at for the Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Corrections in Pine Ridge, South Dakota: “What we really need are hygiene products. Pine Sol, Lysol and Clorox—they are our main expensive items. We are exposed to HIV and other illnesses. Those products can be costly, and they drive the budget.” Go online to Amazon.com or Drugstore.com, and send a case.
Serving Schools: Schools across the country have lost critical arts programs through budget cuts, but the tribal and Bureau of Indian Education funded schools on reservations suffered even more. BIE funding can’t keep up with budgets from tax-based, middle class neighborhoods. Schools always came to us for art supplies, which can be bought in bulk. A school with 200 students can host a terrific arts program for less than $1,500 a year. One year we sent only $700 worth of new art supplies to a school in Wyoming and the students were able to enter statewide art contests. Several won awards and were able to travel with their exhibits. By purchasing construction paper, tempera paints and brushes, watercolor paper and paint sets, crayons, markers, colored pencils, and clay, you may change a future artist’s life.
Have Unique Supplies Lying Around? Quilting squares, ribbons, bolts of fabric, bikes, sports equipment, tools or gardening supplies sitting in the attic and garage? Find out if your local reservation school or youth organization can use them.
Organizing a Drive: Schools and churches encourage youth to do community service projects, and holding drives is an excellent way to raise hard-to-get items for reservations. One college student organized a college-wide toy drive and then raised $750 to rent a truck to bring the toys to the reservation.
New coats are great, but teens often would also love a pair of jeans. New or used jeans in perfect condition will be happily received.
To hold a drive, contact a reservation school or youth center and find out what they need. Have students set up a large box in their school office and ask them to put $2 in the pocket for shipping. Ask the school to hand out flyers designed by students. Inspect for perfect condition, then wash, fold neatly, and ship.
Note: Overwhelming the reservations with old-fashioned, outdated, poor quality, stained and worn used clothing creates hardships for the tribes, not to mention what it does to a person’s spirit to be sent garbage. Every year, tribes must dispose of mountains of unusable clothing. Rodents and dogs create additional problems. Brand new or truly like new only. If you aren’t sure about an item, don’t send it.
Sending Food: Send only non-perishable items with a distant expiration date. Too many companies send expired foods to the reservation. One charitable organization is known for bringing truckloads of fresh food, which they dump on the ground. Keep the dignity and well being of the people foremost in your mind. Canned meats, fruits and vegetables are very appreciated, as are sugar-free cereals, such as oatmeal.
Keeping people warm: Like new, freshly laundered blankets and coats. Do not send heavy wool coats, which can’t be laundered. There are no dry cleaners on many reservations. Lighter weight, winter parkas are preferable. New is always preferable. Freshly washed is critical.
Friends of Pine Ridge do a superb job of distributing needed items for schools and other programs in Pine Ridge. There are no administrative costs, they do not accept money, except for very specific projects, and the organization works hard all year long. It is a very organized method of reaching the public.
Changing Winds has a list of groups on several reservations in South Dakota that they have supported over the years. Support these groups or use the list for ideas to help tribal groups in your own area. If you need a donation letter for tax deduction purposes, let them know with your donation and include a stamped, self-addressed envelope for that purpose.