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Colleges Capturing More Post-graduation Castoffs, Repatriating Them To The Underserved

As college students leave their dorm rooms for the summer, they have to make a decision: take their things home or get rid of them? What’s left behind used to be pitched in a dumpster, but more campuses are taking steps to repurpose as much as possible. Officials at Depauw University in Greencastle estimate they may be saving as much as two-thirds of what used to be thrown away and getting it into the hands of needy families.

Inside the goat barn at the Putnam County fairgrounds, several dozen families scan folding tables lined with clothes, books and housewares – including an anatomically-correct, hand-thrown coffee mug of, shall we say, Jayne Mansfield proportions. Some people waited in line for more than an hour to get first dibs on large items like furniture and appliances. Connie Ardito was first in line and, even though no one else was in the room yet, she ran to the back to claim a clothes dryer as her own.

“Yeah, I wasn’t expecting one, but I saw it and I was like ‘Awesome!’,” Ardito says.

Most of these items have been left behind by students at DePauw University, about a mile up the road from the fairgrounds. For the last six years, the school of about 22-hundred has refined its donation program, encouraging students this year to donate and to encourage others to do so by tweeting the hashtag #THRIFTIT.

“It’s not even necessarily that students are wasteful, it’s just this transition time,” says DePauw Sustainability Director Anthony Barrata, who oversees the operation.

“And so, you have a student who’s in this transitory time, isn’t going to take the futon on the plane, but then this actually makes a difference for whether someone is sleeping on a bed or a futon or the floor,” Baratta says.

Case in point: Ed Sparks, who is helping his wife treasure-hunt.

The little one is their daughter, Madlynn, who ambles up, smiling and sporting a massive, yellow foam hand from some past DePauw sporting event.

"It means a lot," Sparks says. "That way she has something a little bit better than what she's got right now."

Connie Clark, a mother and grandmother with bright pink, shoulder-length highlights in her blond hair, has come for a specific item, too -- a TV.

Clark, carrying her grandson in a carseat, makes her way back to the few televisions that were left behind – all of them older models with cathode ray tubes. Still, she’s grateful.

“They know that if [DePauw students] were like this, they would want someone to do it for them," she says. "And I think it’s just they have a big heart and they’re doing what they can help and I’m thankful for them.”

What Clark is getting at is that many DePauw students come from families with above-average financial means. School admissions officials say the median income for a student’s family is nearly $100,000. That’s well above the City of Greencastle’s $41,000 median household salary.

A week before the goat barn giveaway, while students were still packing and saying their goodbyes, some tossed unwanted items into recycling boxes that the school had left in the dorm hallways.

Allen Denhart, who was moving his daughter Emily out after her first year, said he'd moved his kids out of dorm rooms before but was doing it differently this year because of the constant reminders to donate.

"Yeah, normally I would have just taken it to the dumpster if I didn't know," he says. "Like that big piece of carpet there will probably save somebody $50 or $100 if they need a piece of carpet for next year."

Back at the goat barn, Carrie Ardito certainly saved some money finding that clothes dryer.

"I'm grateful for it, because it's stuff I can't afford on my own," Ardito says. "And then if I can't use it, I donate it to somebody else. I'm excited."

When this program started six years ago, only about a dozen families benefited. This year, it's more than 100.