From 1999 until 2003 I ran a charity that delivered clothing, school and medical supplies up to villages in the Sierra Madre mountains. Here's some of what I learned:
1) Used clothing, at least in the first world, is free. Just about as much as you want. Also, there are five or six pieces of women's clothing to every one of men's.
2) The most valuable clothing to poor communities is children's clothes, particularly for adolescent boys. Coats and blankets are great - but kids clothes are like gold.
3) One of the easiest things you can do to alleviate human misery is collect warm clothing, put it in your car, and then go find people who are cold.
My pitch was simple: "I'll take your clothes, put them in my truck and drive them up to poor people in the Sierra Madres." Pretty much everyone I talked to thought it was a good idea, but there were a few - maybe one in ten - who really got it. A sort of fire came to their eyes as they listened and said "That's a really, really good idea."
Soon a whole bunch of really cool things started happening all at once. GTE Wireless got bought out by someone and donated $85,000 worth of T-Shirts and sweatshirts with their logo on it. (To give you an idea of how things work in those circles, they didn't even want a receipt.) I got a $10,000 grant from Paul Newman/Newman's Own and even got to meet The Man himself. And I met Delfino, the unofficial mayor of Douglas/Agua Prieta. He helped me move stuff over the border, a little at a time, and then helped me move it up to a warehouse in Bavispe, a beautiful little town on the main road through the mountains. Other things fell into place: schools held clothing drives and stores like Alpha Thrift in Santa Barbara and Buffalo Exchange started donating clothes literally by the ton.
I should mention here that up until then I'd had a pretty good life - hell, a great life - just about as exciting and romantic as anyone could ask for... But I can't say it had been particularly useful. This was different. Even the mundane parts - sorting, folding and packing the clothes - was like sifting through treasure. Every time a really good batch of kids clothes, or some beautiful little child's parka came up I'd think to myself "Wow... yesterday this was practically nothing - just another thing taking up space in a closet somewhere. Soon it'll be keeping some kid warm up in those mountains... making some parents just a little bit happier..."
A lot of the clothes came in big 200 pound bales, crushed and wrinkled almost beyond saving. Here's how you bring them back: string a bunch of rope around your yard and get about a hundred hangers. Put the clothes on the hangers, space them along the ropes and then spray the whole lot with a hose. After a couple hours in the sun, with a bit of a breeze, they'll be fine. As for packing, fold the clothes as flat as possible and try to put a little of everything in each box - women's, men's, kids... Condense it all as much as you can. Done right you can get 1200 pounds or more into the back of a small pickup. The stuff that was too big, or useless, for people in the villages went to homeless shelters, soup kitchens or the Salvation Army.
And then there was the driving... The mexican outback has pretty much every kind of terrain imaginable: jungles, deserts, cloud forest... In the summer there were monsoons: huge masses of cumulous clouds would form in the afternoons, blackening the sky before finally breaking into torrents of rain and incredible bursts of lightning and thunder. It was awesome. (Of course, back then extreme weather was more of a novelty.) Driving at night was a bit scary I'll admit, but that's what the tape deck was for. While everybody has different tastes in music I think we can agree on this: Good music is what gets you through bad times.
Driving at night also brought me to places where I could see for miles and miles in all directions without a sign of mankind or a single electric light: nothing around me but deep blue ridgelines fading into black. That's when the stars really come out. That's when you can see the Big Wheels Turning and almost... almost... understand how you fit in.
I made about twenty-five trips into the mountains, and by 2003 I'd delivered clothing to every village along the Sonora/Chihuahua border. I made it a point not to go near the Copper Canyon area where the Tarahumara live. They still made their own clothes and I didn't want to mess that up.
In a lot of respects Take to the Hills was a huge success, and easily the proudest accomplishment of my life. In other respects it was a failure. I honestly thought, when I first started out, that I'd found the key to eliminating poverty, or at least some of its specific miseries. But it never really caught on beyond me and a couple of friends.
Nevertheless, the formula is pretty much the same all over the world: rich people live in the cities where it's generally warm and there's lots of everything, poor people live in the mountains where it's cold and there isn't. All it takes to fix it is for people with cars to take what they don't need and bring it to the people who do. Take from the rich and give to the poor - the killer app for the SUV - and it's a shame it never caught on.
What I did learn though, strictly by chance, was the answer to one of the biggest questions there is. A question so obvious it amazed me that I'd lived so long without even bothering to ask it: What's the most useful thing you can do with the resources you have to make this world a better place?
For a while the answer, at least for me, was up in the Sierra Madres. But then of course, things change.