Monday, March 17, 2008

Serve DC @ DC General

Physical PlantOn Sunday, I spent a few hours working with Serve DC on the Mount Pleasant relief effort. This was my first time doing this kind of volunteer work so I really had no idea what to expect. I was told to show up at Building 6 at DC General with work gloves. It was a grey day, and navigating through the barracks-like maze of the DC General complex was a bit baffling, but before too long I found my way to the warehouse where the work was to be done. I parked across from the physical plant, pictured, which apparently powers the whole complex since hospitals can't be at risk should the grid go down. I happened to be the first person to arrive since I got there a little early, and was greeted by Shirley Hall, a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Manager with Serve DC.

Ms. Hall gave me a quick tour of the premises. Building 6 is basically a big storage facility with several loading docks. They do take donations directly there, but it also seems to be a general clearing house where everything else that's been received from other locations is taken to be sorted. There were about two dozen palletes spread throughout the room, each with large plastic bags containing mostly clothing. Each pallete was labelled to identify what the bags contained: Mens Tops, large. Women's suits. Boys, 8-12, and so on.

The primary job of the volunteer force is to go through the donations, decide whether it's a keeper or not, and put it into the right category. The standard for whether something gets kept is very simple. Would you wear this? If the answer is no, it gets trashed. Anything stained, ripped, or generally not in excellent condition will get rejected. Unfortunately, this means that even if something's just a little dirty can't be used, because it's just not possible to deal with washing clothes on top of everything else. It makes sense - there's too much volume. Ms. Hall said that the quality of the donations for the Mt. Pleasant releif effort had been extraordinary. Probably 95% of what was received was useable. And sure enough, in the time I was there, we threw away very little. Most people gave clothing in excellent condition, in some cases still on the hanger from the dry cleaner.

Sunday mornings are typically pretty slow becase a lot of people go to church. Such was the case for my time there, from 8:30 until about noon. We received maybe a half-dozen individual dontations, which were easily handled by myself and the 7 or 8 other volunteers there. So, the downtime was used to prep the space for a large furniture donation that was coming in the afternoon, and get all the items that had been processed the day before ready for distribution. We did some final sorting, labelled and closed up all the bags, and moved them into a back room where they would be held until picked up later in the day.

The whole operation worked like clockwork. Though the process isn't extraordinarily complicated, my experience with any kind of effort involving a bunch of untrained workers is that it can easily go south. But everyone worked together, and there was very little idle time for the first couple hours as the stuff from the previous day was closed up, tagged, moved into storage before distribution, and the loading dock prepped for new arrivals. Each aspect of the system was well defined: when someone arrives, first greet them and have them fill out a donation sheet. Take the stuff inside, and inspect each item for quality first. If it passes, put in in the right pile. If it fails, trash it.

Ms. Hall clearly understands how this stuff needs to work and did a great job of supervising the operation at the same time as fielding dozens of phone calls about other aspects of the effort taking place elsewhere. She had a great attitude and obviously cares a lot about her job. It was pretty cool to see firsthand how this sort of thing works, and even more importantly to see that there are really great people working in DC Government. Kudos to Serve DC.


Brett said...

found you!

Jamie said...

I guess I can run but I can't hide!

Seriously... did you get my email the other day? I have spam filter issues with my primary email address.