Mark Klapatch-Mathias, coordinator of the UWRF Sustainability Office, shows a toy to student Amber Rappl as they sort items donated as part of the Don’t Throw It, Donate It! project.
Mark Klapatch-Mathias, coordinator of the UWRF Sustainability Office, shows a toy to student Amber Rappl as they sort items donated as part of the Don’t Throw It, Donate It! project. UWRF photo.

Moving toward sustainability: Campus effort benefits the environment and people in need 

June 7, 2023 - An annual waste reduction effort at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls is getting items that would be otherwise destined for a landfill to people who need them.

Volunteers working with the Don’t Throw It, Donate It! program collected more than 4,500 donated items as students moved out of their residence halls at the end of the academic year, according to organizers. The effort is coordinated by the Residence Life Department, the Sustainability Office and the Green Team student organization. 

Total collections are up from previous years and are a sign that more students are aware of the importance of living in a sustainable manner, said Joan Mayen, who started Don’t Throw It, Donate It! in 2006 with her husband Mike of the UWRF Building Maintenance Department. 

“Awareness among students about this continues to grow,” Mayen said. “Every year we continue to get more and more items donated.”

Among this year’s totals were 4,563 items donated, up from last year’s 4,145 figure. This year, donations totaled 6,564 pounds, larger than 6,433 pounds last year. 

Mark Klapatch-Mathias, coordinator of the Sustainability Office, praised UWRF students for caring about their community and the environment.

“UWRF students once again proved their generosity by donating over 4,000 items this year instead of disposing of those items in dumpsters,” he said.

Items that students donate as they move out of the residence halls cover a wide range, from clothing to personal care to electronics to school supplies. Other donated items include common household materials, sporting good equipment and furniture. Nonperishable food items also are donated. 

“We get some of almost everything,” Mayen said. 

Donated items are collected from designated drop-off sites in residence halls by a group of volunteers and taken to be sorted. They are then distributed to local nonprofits, who in turn make those items available to people who need them. 
Items were gathered and sorted at the conference room at South Forks Suite during May and were then distributed to the River Falls Community Food Pantry, Treasures of the Heart, Our Neighbors Place, the River Falls School District and Freddy’s Pantry (a food pantry at UWRF).  

Donations to Our Neighbors’ Place through Don’t Throw It, Donate It! make a significant positive difference to that organization’s clients, said Shelly Smith, director of the River Falls nonprofit that provides shelter, housing services and other support to people who need it.

Donated clothing and items such as blankets, towels and sheets are used by the nonprofit’s thrift store, Smith said. Clients also appreciate the convenience food items donated, she said, as well as household items that are used by homeless families in the organization’s transitional housing units.

“Some of these items don’t seem like a big deal until you don’t have them,” Smith said. “It’s really amazing the amount of useful items that our clients have access to because of this great program at UW-River Falls.” 

Labor of love

Brenda Irvin grabbed two sweaters from a large pile, carried them a short distance, then placed them near other clothing tops. She returned to the pile, grabbed more clothes and hauled them to their new pile. 

“There is so much here,” a smiling Irvin said. “You feel like sorting it will take forever. But it is good to see that students have donated so much.”

Irvin, who recently retired from the Business and Finance Office, got involved with Don’t Throw It, Donate It! years ago and said she enjoys helping others and working with other volunteers. As she continued to sort items, she laughed as she came across threadbare clothing and a broken fan. 

“There are lots of treasures in here,” a joking Irvin said. 

Nearby, Klapatch-Mathias chuckled as he turned the handle of an old-time mixer after locating it amid a pile of donated items. “Look how old this is,” he said. “This is an antique.”

While Klapatch-Mathias, Irvin and other volunteers often laugh as they sift through donations, they are serious about the detailed sorting process. Separating clothing and the many other donated items not only helps volunteers know what has been collected but is important to the agencies who receive donated goods. 

Smith said her agency lacks the manpower to separate the donated items, and she is thankful that UWRF volunteers offer donations in an already sorted easy-to-use manner.   

“If we had to sort all of this ourselves, we would have to say ‘sorry, we can’t take it,’” Smith said. “That is key. They are giving us all this stuff in a very usable fashion.”  

Making a difference

Don’t Throw It, Donate It! owes its beginning to a long-ago dumpster-diving trip and a sense of caring about the environment. 

In spring 2005, Mayen’s oldest daughter, a high school student at the time, told them she was going dumpster diving in River Falls with some friends. Puzzled, the Mayens asked about the seemingly odd expedition. The daughter said the UWRF dumpsters were home to lots of new or gently used items that UWRF students had thrown out.

“I was like ‘What? What do you mean you’re going dumpster diving at the college,’” Mayen recalled. “Mike and I had our eyes opened, and we said we should do something about this.” 

Mayen, who works as a financial specialist at UWRF, reached out to residence life staff to assess the situation and learn more about it. She and her husband then decided to begin the effort that recycles students’ throwaways into items others can use. 

For a decade the couple hauled the donated items to their garage, where they sorted the materials before distributing them to local nonprofits. The effort eventually outgrew that site, and since 2016 it has been housed in various spaces at UWRF. As awareness about the program grew, so did the number of volunteers and organizations willing to be a part of it.

“It is so amazing to see what this has become,” Mayen said. “It has become such a collaborative effort, and that is exactly what it should be. There is so much good energy with it. Each spring when we do this, it’s my favorite time of year on campus.” 

Smith also marvels at the program’s impact. Many River Falls residents who are struggling have better lives because of it, she said. 

“It’s fantastic for the clients we work with,” Smith said. “It’s so heartening to see the positive difference this is making for people who really need the help.”

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