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Be a Freecycle Santa

[I wrote this article almost a year ago, but too late to do much good before the holiday season, so I’ve dusted it off for this year. It’s still entirely accurate and relevant, and I strongly encourage everyone to think about clearing out electronic clutter in this fashion, as I too will be doing once again. -Adam]

Several years ago, I raved about how quick and satisfying it was to dispose of old and potentially dodgy electronics via the Freecycle Network, a loose affiliation of mailing-list based groups of people who exchange reusable goods for free (see “Freecycle: Disposing of Good Old Stuff,” 6 August 2007). Every so often since, I resubscribe to the Ithaca Freecycle list whenever I come across something that I’d far rather give away than throw away — a portable chair that didn’t fit either me or Tonya, an old tabletop that was taking up space in the garage, a houseplant that had outgrown our living room, and so on.

I was recently bemoaning the fact that we had some elderly iPods and a PlayStation 2 that Tonya had gotten to play Dance Dance Revolution (but stopped using because she didn’t like the music), all of which were perfectly functional, but none of which had been touched in years. They weren’t worth the effort of selling, given the prices for comparable or better items I’d seen on craigslist. Then I had a brainstorm — many people on Freecycle would surely want these items, despite their age, and even better, given the time of year, I could require that they be used only as presents for kids who wouldn’t otherwise receive such a gift.

Posting them on Freecycle was a huge success — I immediately received email from numerous people who were interested, and I set up pickups for the people who I felt had the most need and the kids who were most likely to appreciate the gifts. The PlayStation 2 went to the 7-year-old daughter of a single mother working two jobs while undergoing a divorce. The iPod photo went to the teenage daughters of another single mother working two jobs, and the third-generation iPod will be shared by the five children of a woman who couldn’t work because of a medical condition.

Perhaps most gratifying was the iPod nano, which a teaching assistant at a local elementary school is giving to a third-grader whose family (a single mother of four kids who is working double shifts at a hotel) can’t make ends meet, to the extent where teachers at the school have been helping with necessities like food, clothing, and required dental care. When the teachers asked the third-grader what he liked to do outside of school, the kid said, “I know what you’re trying to do, but don’t worry about me and just get things for my little brother. I’ll be fine.” I hope he likes the iPod; the teaching assistant is also giving him an iTunes gift card and helping him set the iPod up on a school computer.

The only hard part about giving these old electronics away has been hearing from all the people who are similarly deserving. I could have given away a dozen PlayStations and twice as many iPods if only I’d had them.

But some of you do have them. So I’d like to encourage everyone out there with old iPods, digital cameras, game consoles, or other unused but functional electronics to don a virtual Santa hat and see if you can brighten some kid’s Christmas this year via Freecycle. The most difficult barrier to clear with Freecycle is simply getting started. Here’s what you have to do.

  1. Go to the Freecycle Network site and search for your town. You can also browse through lists to find a nearby group.

  2. For groups hosted on the Freecycle site, posts will appear, along with Sign Up/Log In and Search Posts buttons (once you’re logged in to the Freecycle site, that first button changes to Join This Group). For older groups that are still hosted on Yahoo Groups, there’s a small “Visit the group and see the posts” link, way at the bottom of the screen.

  3. For Freecycle-hosted groups, log in and click Join This Group. For Yahoo Groups-hosted groups, follow the link to Yahoo Groups, and click the Join This Group button. You’ll have to log in with your Yahoo ID.

  4. Once you’re a member of the group, you can post. The Freecycle site has a Web form for this, which I haven’t used, since the Ithaca group is hosted at Yahoo Groups, but I presume it’s basically the same as sending email to the list submission address. The Subject line of the post must start with the word OFFER and then list what you’re giving away. In the body of the message, be explicit about the item, the condition it’s in, and any other relevant details. I recommend including links to more information or pictures, if that’s easy (I often take a photo with my iPhone, put it in my ~/Dropbox/Public folder, Control-click to copy the public Dropbox link, and paste the link into the
    email message).

  5. At the end of the post, provide details about how you’ll choose from among the people who reply — this is where you should be explicit about wanting the item to be a gift for a deserving child and ask that people provide a little background to help you choose. Be sure to say roughly where you’re located (not your address, just your neighborhood) so people can evaluate how far away you are, and also ask that people tell you where they’re coming from and when they can meet you, so you can take schedule and unnecessary gas consumption into account in choosing a recipient.

  6. After you post your message, you’ll start receiving replies. Don’t respond to them at first; it’s better to wait a few hours to make sure you have a representative sample. Then you can pick the most deserving recipient, reply via direct mail to set up a pickup time and place (either your home or office, or a nearby public space), and meet with the recipient. If you post in the morning, you can often give the item away by the evening — it’s seldom a drawn-out process.

  7. Finally, once you’ve chosen someone, post another message to the list with the same Subject line, replacing the word OFFER with the word TAKEN. That’s sufficient for alerting the people you didn’t pick, although there’s certainly no harm in replying to them individually as well.

The incredible response I got to this rather offhand idea was what prompted me to write this article (I even received a number of extremely kind messages from people who just wanted to thank me for helping kids in this way). I encourage you to follow suit while there’s time before Christmas, and honestly, even if you’re reading this article after the holidays, there’s nothing stopping you from giving away unused items and saying that you want some item to be a belated Christmas present for a child whose holiday was otherwise pretty bleak.

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