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From Helping Vietnam Veterans to Helping My Neighbors

Times are tough, every day we hear how businesses, government agencies, and charities are struggling, but so are some of your neighbors.
07/26/2009 05:12am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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I've downsized through three homes to where I'm living now and I have a lot of stuff in my garage, but no room for the car. For years I've dreaded cleaning out the garage, fearing it was going to take forever to go through all those boxes, many of them unopened since I'd first taped them up over a decade ago. Surely the boxes must be filled with my life's treasures, why else would I have dragged them through four states across the country?

With the help of an amazing, non-judgmental professional organizer, I was finally feeling ready to tackle the garage. Worried that I hadn't bought enough shelving units for all the valuable treasures I would rediscover, I began opening boxes. Old letters from college boyfriends? A dolphin lamp? Issues of W Magazine dating back to 2003? Several sets of dishes, serving bowls, enough Christmas decorations for three families, clothes, toys, bikes, videotapes . . . these are the things that have been weighing me down -- literally and figuratively -- for years now?

I've always donated my time and money, so the Vietnam Veterans, a local homeless shelter, a local shelter for abused women, and the Haitian orphanage and birth family of my children received the bulk of the items in my garage. After all the years I've hung on to these "things", I was surprised at how easy it was to just give it all away. And it felt great, I felt lighter and freer, ready for a future that was much less cluttered.

I live in a nice suburban neighborhood, and as I started to bring the stuff out to my driveway for the VVA pick-up a really interesting thing happened; my neighbors slowly started coming over to check things out. Most of them were a little embarrassed at first, pretending like they were just there to talk to me, but as we spoke their eyes darted around the boxes and bags in my driveway. The topic of conversation invariably turned to "the economy", and several people quickly snatched a few things as they left.

My feelings were mixed, at first I wasn't too happy that these upper middle class people were "taking things away" from the VVA, but that day I found out that some of my neighbors had been laid off, forced to retire early, losing their homes and were having a tough time, my feelings changed. One neighbor commented that she felt like a "scrounge", I told her that she wasn't scrounging but "re-purposing" my old hangers and the look of relief that came across her face was amazing. Personally, I've bought clothes at thrift stores, visited the occasional garage sale, but when I saw this woman, in her gold jewelry and nice clothes, express such relief at a "legitimate to her" reason to take the hangers in my pile it struck me that a lot of people are suffering these days; and a lot of them are people not used to suffering when it comes to their finances.

It was a win-win for everyone. It felt awesome to get rid of all those "treasures" I've been dragging around for years, a couple of charities got a lot of nice donations, and I met some new neighbors who also got a few things they needed. Times are tough, every day we hear how businesses, government agencies, and charities are struggling, but so are some of your neighbors. Now more than ever, it's important that we stick together and help each other out in whatever ways we can.