Charitable staff turn trash to treasure

Charitable staff turn trash into treasure

“Still Life with Teddy Bear” (2002), our photographer’s take on a representative sample of items left behind by graduating seniors.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Every September, a tide of some 10,000 students rolls into University City to begin another year at Penn.

And when the tide rolls out the following May, it leaves behind a mountain of material goods that have to be disposed of somehow.

Of course, one person’s trash is another’s treasure, and the stuff Penn students leave behind underscores the truth of the old saying.

“It looked like a thrift shop in the lobby,” said Mike Latimore, front desk manager at Harrison College House, of the food, clothing and household goods departing students donated to charities.

In their rush to pack up and leave this year, students nonetheless found the time to give truckloads of clothing and small household items—including clothes never worn and items in like-new condition—to a charity drive organized by Harrison College House staff. A moving-van-sized truck from the St. Vincent de Paul Society made daily trips for three days to haul everything away.

But not everything students leave behind is so easy to cart off. “A lot of things get left behind because [students] fly home,” said Stephani Robinson, the front desk manager at DuBois College House. “They can’t afford to carry big things with them.”

So they end up leaving them in hallways or inside their rooms—”old phones, ironing boards, radios, even undefrosted refrigerators with food inside,” Robinson said. Housekeeping staff interviewed for this story reported finding, on their final sweep of evacuated dorm rooms, computers and big-screen televisions among the items left behind.

Usually, students leave only a few things behind in rooms otherwise cleared of the essentials, but that’s not always the case.

“In the early 1990s, I once had an international student from South America leave behind an entire room full of things,” said Jane Rogers, house dean in Goldberg College House. “Our housekeeping staff confirmed that the student had indeed checked out, so I called the student and said, You left all your stuff.

“He said, It was too much trouble to move it. We gave all the clothing to charity, and other students and staff claimed the other items.”

Some of the things students leave behind, such as items found in hallways, end up being thrown away. Unless, that is, someone can find a suitable new home for them.

Take that food left in refrigerators, for instance. “If their sell-by dates haven’t passed,” Robinson said, “we donate [unopened items] to food banks.”

Not everything makes it to charity, however.

“I’ve seen sofas, lamps, all kinds of things” left in hallways by students rushing to beat the deadline for moving out, said Alton Strange, house dean of Spruce College House. “If you need something for your home, you can usually find it in the halls.”

Originally published on June 20, 2002