With evacuees arriving at the Phoenix airport, a local radio station announced Katrina Donation Day. I was looking for a way to help and it was easy enough to pack a box of clothes for the New Orleans refugees. To give a little extra, I joined the bucket brigade in the station parking lot and helped load the truck – lots of clothing, also toys, baby stuff, toiletries, hygiene items. The hygiene woke me up, a box filled with necessities that have been in my bathroom cabinet since childhood. That’s when I realized the enormity of losing everything and I knew I could make a difference in the rescue.
I’m an organizer. I usually organize ideas, but I can organize stuff. The hurricane rescue effort in Phoenix was receiving massive amounts of donated items. They could probably use some organizing expertise. I started phoning the next day and was put on waiting lists. To be effective, I had to get started soon. Organizing initiatives work best when they happen at the beginning of a project. So I kept calling. Eventually someone understood the value of my offer. At Salvation Army headquarters, they gave me a badge and sent me to evacuee housing. It was now Monday afternoon, Labor Day, 2005.
The strategy was for evacuees to tell caseworkers what clothing they needed. The caseworkers then searched for the right sizes in a free store arranged like a thrift store, with clothing divided by major categories, but not by size. When I arrived, volunteers were emptying large warehouse boxes and hanging clothes on sales racks. I positioned myself in their area for a full view of the entire operation and started sorting. One of the volunteers, The Boss, came over to give me instructions, which I followed as I continued to survey the situation.
One key to a successful organizing project is finding a component with high return on investment (ROI). The investment is the organizing expense, in this case, time and energy. For my purposes, hanging up clothes had a low ROI because inconsistent size labeling forced a careful examination of each item. The clothing in these categories was also few enough to be eyeballed by a caseworker. I started looking for a fast win, an easy to organize section where caseworker frustration was high. They were pawing through jumbled heaps of underwear and mounds of shoes trying to find sizes. Underwear would be a huge project, but at least it was divided by sex. Not so for shoes, which was also a more manageable quantity. That’s where I started, working into the evening dividing shoes by sex and size.
The next morning I established authority by arriving early with supplies from home – blank paper, marking pens and tape. The first task was labeling the now organized shoes. When The Boss showed up around mid-morning and saw me already there, she knew I wouldn’t be following her instructions anymore. About the time I finished the shoes, a large shipment of khaki pants arrived, neatly folded and stapled with conforming labels. Big ROI there. Evacuees were requesting work clothes for job interviews. I located some unused tables, set up a staging area, and sorted pants like a deck of cards. The thrift store was now beginning to feel like a shopping mall jeans store. Caseworkers just walked up to the correct size and took what they needed.
Returning from a break, I found my staging area commandeered for a thrift store category. The Boss gave me a significant look, but she had not undone the organized khakis. I wasn’t there for territorial skirmishes, so I walked over to the intimidating pile of women’s underwear. Caseworkers, getting accustomed to efficiency, were complaining about sizes. The first sort separated panties from socks. That required finding empty boxes, refilling the boxes, and maneuvering them within a small space. By the time everything was prepped, it was already evening. Size sorting would begin tomorrow.
I arrived early again, but this day The Boss didn’t show and the organizing effort really got established. After taping size labels to the wall, I began sorting the women’s underwear. I got into the zone, the organizing zone. It took all day, with caseworkers searching the collection as I worked. At one point, I turned around and saw a guy organizing the men’s underwear. About an hour later a group of new volunteers came up to me and asked what they could do to help. I showed them the women’s socks. When I finished the panties in the late afternoon, I took another visual survey. All volunteers were organizing. Caseworkers were finding what they needed without assistance. Size labels on the wall displayed the organized nature of this facility. In two and a half days, I turned a thrift store into a distribution center. I did it without disrupting the rescue effort or even requesting assistance.