Foster a Successful Neighborhood Hand-Me-Down Network

Hand-me-downs. Sometimes horrible, sometimes amazing. The benefits, of course, are plenty – reducing the environmental impact through less manufacturing and transportation of goods, cost-savings, teaching children valuable lessons about sharing and reusing, reducing clutter in your home, creating a give-and-receive value system with others, etc.

But, there are some negatives to hand-me-downs, and a few things you can do to encourage a better sharing community – one that will make you, and your friends, grateful and happy about giving and receiving.

First, the Bad: Have you ever had several garbage bags filled with clothes dumped on your driveway? You may have experienced mixed emotions – hope, anxiety, exhaustion. Like most families, you’ve probably already got a lot of STUFF you’re continuously trying to minimize, and you’ve just received a heck of a lot more. It takes a lot of work to sort through multiple bags to find things your child will use – and if you’ve got little kids, time is hard to come by. On top of that, hand-me-downs are often stored in garages, where they acquire a specific moldy garage smell. Some hand-me-downs go from family to family, worn by multiple children and stained by more than one, until they arrive at your door worn, stained, and out of date, leaving YOU with the job of repacking them up and dropping them off for donation. Grrr.

The Good: Some hand-me-downs turn out to be absolute treasures and all-time favorites. Hand-knit sweaters, beautiful, barely worn outfits, brand new shoes that didn’t fit another child’s feet, holiday dresses only worn a couple times, stylish items that add a unique spin to a child’s wardrobe. Ski gear, soccer cleats, snow boots, winter coats, car seats, bunk beds… these are the types of hand-me-downs that save you time and money, help decrease what goes to the landfill and make you feel good about not contributing to a wasteful buy, buy, buy cycle. The back and forth communication and friendly drop-offs can even spawn dinner parties and friendships, and contribute to a positive neighborhood and community.

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How can you minimize the bad and increase the good in your own neighborhood? Here are a few tips:

1) Edit What You Give

You’ve just cleaned out your children’s closet and have heaps of cloths piled around the room. You could easily shove everything into a few garbage bags and give them to someone who has said they’re interested. But a true friend does some major editing and culling before sharing, sorting out anything less-than-desirable. A few pointers:

– Never pass down underwear

– Rarely pass down socks (cute little baby socks are an exception)

– Donate anything stained, ripped, pilled, broken, or worn.

– Tie shoe laces together or otherwise connect shoes to each other

– Fold and pack everything into 1 – 2 shopping bags or boxes (preferably not garbage bags) Pack it nicely – so that your recipient feels as if they’re receiving a gift. If you can’t fit everything into 2 shopping bags, you’re giving somebody too much stuff. Split stuff off for donation or give to another friend.

2) Develop a network and be specific

There are two categories of hand-me-downs: useful gear-type items like car seats and soccer cleats, and more personal items that are specific to a person’s taste, like clothing and bedding. They should be handled differently.

Having an email or online group is extremely helpful for those useful gear-type items. There are about 100 families on the network I belong to, and posts and updates are flying regularly about who needs what and who has stuff to give. For example, “John Henry has outgrown his size 13 ski boots and size 6 bibs – anyone interested? First to reply can have them. Will donate tomorrow if we don’t hear.” Or, “Looking for bunkbeds – anyone have any leads? Will pick up and bring wine!” Post or share photos.

For personal items, the giver usually has someone in mind. A friend whose child is a size or two smaller, and whom you’d like to pass on special items to. Make sure they’re interested, and be specific about what you’re offering, for example: “Hi, I’m sorting through Jane’s closet and she has 2 beautiful size 3 silk Christmas dresses (Janie and Jack), a size 4 faux fur cape (no joke) that is perfect for the Nutcracker, and a size 3 black wool coat that we thought Tilley might like. Any interest?” Don’t feel bad if your friend replies that they’ve got too many clothes already – we’ve all been there. Move to the next person on your list.

3) Don’t ask for cash

Unless you’re selling a car or a large piece of furniture, it’s better to pay it forward. Offer your gently used items as gifts, and you will receive in return.

4) Give for keeps if possible

Some people loan children’s clothes and ask for them back by writing their initials in the labels. Others seemingly give hand-me-downs and then hit you with a surprise when they ask for them back for somebody else, not knowing that you already sorted and donated, or passed down to another friend in need (oops!).  The whole system is cleaner and better if you give for keeps. There are exceptions of course – a close friend loaned me my first baby’s whole first year’s wardrobe of very cute, stylish clothes, and I happily sorted through them and returned them when they grew too small. She used them for her next child. Most people, however, find that once they’ve purged they don’t really want the clothes back anyway. Just more stuff to add to their storage bins.

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Follow these tips and before you know it, you’ll be giving and receiving with the best of them! Join the conversation – if you have any experiences or ideas to share, please comment below.