OKLAHOMA CITY – Donations are pouring into Oklahoma as people around the country look to help residents affected by last week’s violent tornado outbreak, but charities also are receiving plenty of items they don’t need — tons of used clothes, shoes and stuffed animals that take up valuable warehouse space and clog distribution networks.
Charity organizers say monetary donations are far more flexible and useful, and many organizations are expected to see an infusion of cash donations after a benefit concert Wednesday night in Oklahoma City that featured country music stars with Oklahoma ties, including Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Vince Gill and Reba McEntire.
At the Abundant Life Church in Moore, just a few blocks from the Plaza Towers Elementary School where seven children died in the May 20 tornado, Sunday school classrooms are overflowing with donated clothes and other used items.
“I don’t want to come across at all like we don’t appreciate people’s generosity, because we do,” said Norma Clanton, a longtime church member who is helping co-ordinate volunteer efforts at the church. “To be honest, we’ve had very few people that have even come and looked at clothes.
“The people who have lost their homes, many of them aren’t even in a permanent dwelling. They don’t have room for a closet full of clothes or anything like that.”
The American Red Cross says it’s not equipped to handle a large influx of donations like household items — which take time and money to sort, process and transport. Officials with major relief organizations encourage people to send money instead.
“We spend that money locally to help energize the local economy … and it allows us to spend it on items we need,” said Salvation Army spokeswoman Jennifer Dodd.
Organizations helping displaced residents are expected to see an influx of cash from the “Healing in the Heartland: Relief Benefit Concert” at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in downtown Oklahoma City that was held Wednesday. The money goes directly to the United Way of Central Oklahoma, which will distribute funding agencies helping in relief and recovery efforts for those affected by the May 20 tornado, said Karla Bradshaw, a spokeswoman for the United Way of Central Oklahoma.
“Those are the ones that are dealing right now with the immediate needs,” Bradshaw said.
People who lined up outside the arena in heavy rain before the telethon said they were happy to have an opportunity to help their neighbours and enjoy a night of country music.
“I told my husband I wanted to help, and what better way than to do something fun too,” said 29-year-old Kara McCarthy of Oklahoma City, who attended the concert with a friend.
Shelton, a native of Ada, kicked off the concert with a version of his song “God Gave Me You.”
The televised event also included recorded video pleas from Oklahoma native Garth Brooks and his wife, Trisha Yearwood, Moore native Toby Keith, Ellen Degeneres and Jay Leno.
“I’m here tonight with some of my closest friends from Oklahoma and beyond,” Shelton told the sold-out crowd before the concert began. “It’s going to be awesome. We’re doing a TV show so we can raise as much money as humanly possible.”
Donations have poured in to Oklahoma since two major tornadoes ripped through the state last week, killing 26 people and affecting nearly 4,000 homes, businesses and other buildings in five counties. Twenty-four people, including 10 children, were killed in the May 20 tornado that hit the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore.
In just the first three days after the tornado hit Moore, the Red Cross reported raising about $15 million in donations and pledges for its response to the Oklahoma tornados, including about $3.8 million in pledges from text donations.
The Salvation Army reported Tuesday afternoon it already has raised more than $5 million in monetary donations, as well as in-kind food donations from numerous corporations.
Before Wednesday night’s concert, the United Way of Central Oklahoma reported raising $3 million for tornado relief, and the governor also asked the charity to administer an additional $2 million from a separate Oklahoma Strong disaster fund, said Debby Hampton, president and CEO of United Way of Central Oklahoma.
Dodd, with the Salvation Army, said many people are holding clothing drives to help benefit local residents, but that can pose problems for charities and other groups that might not have the room to store the items.
“Just the logistics of shipping a hundred pounds of clothing from across the country, it’s terribly expensive and then you have to worry if you have space on the ground,” Dodd said.
Ken Sterns, who spent years researching the best and most effective charities for his book, “With Charity for All,” said donating to reputable, well-established charities also helps victims of the next disaster.
“I think most charity experts recommend giving cash donations, but I also tell people that in fact the most valuable contributions are not the contributions made after the fact, but contributions that allow charities, especially disaster relief organizations, to prepare for helping the victims of the next disaster,” Sterns said. “We don’t know who they are. We don’t have a face on them. But we know they are coming.”
Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy