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BY DOUG HARLOW
Staff Writer
Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel 01/18/2010

BY DOUG HARLOW

Staff Writer

The retail manager at Skills, Inc., a nonprofit agency serving local people with developmental disabilities, says the organization is losing donations of clothing and shoes to another nonprofit group that helps people in third-world countries.

Retail manager Joanne Grignon, of Winslow, said Planet Aid, based in Holliston, Mass., has set up bright yellow donation boxes in areas traditionally served by Skills. The boxes started appearing last summer, she said.

Fred Olsson, general manager for Planet Aid in New England, said it is more likely the economy in general is affecting donations at Skills, not Planet Aid.

He said people are not buying new clothing and, in turn, are not donating used items as they once did, but added that Planet Aid is willing to discuss the problem from their Gardiner office with Skills officials to find a solution.

"We have been in central Maine since autumn 2007 and 2008 and last year," Olsson said. "Our main connection is Augusta, down south to Portland. There is growing competition for used clothing in Maine. I would say that everybody has a worthy cause, of course, and the donations are probably dwindling, especially in central and northern Maine, not so much because of other organizations, but because of the economy itself."

He said Planet Aid collects donated clothing from an estimated 12,000 yellow boxes nationwide. The clothing is sorted and sold, with the proceeds used to support relief aid in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Grignon said donations to Skills are down an estimated 60 percent over the past several months. She said Planet Aid yellow collection boxes began appearing last summer.

"Donations of clothing have decreased dramatically over the past six months," Grignon said. "During that time frame, we have noticed the placement of many yellow boxes from the Planet Aid organization.

"We realize that the convenience factor of these donation boxes has been enticing our former donors to drop their used clothing in these boxes, rather than having to come to one of our thrift stores in Waterville, Skowhegan or Farmington."

She said there are Planet Aid boxes that she has seen in Skowhegan, Fairfield and in Vassalboro, but there could be more.

Skills, Inc., is the result of a merger several years ago between Ken-A-Set and Sebasticook Farms. On the day after Thanksgiving, the agency gave free winter clothing to 88 families in central Maine, Grignon said.

The drop in donations, she said, directly affects local people needing the donations and discounted garments, but also affects 57 developmentally challenged people who are employed by the agency.

Grignon said donated clothing from the three stores and other drop-off points is processed by adults with developmental disabilities for sales to people in need. Without local donations, those jobs are in jeopardy, she said.

"They are sorting all of the clothing -- they sort them by season and according to quality," Grignon said.

Clothing that is stained or ripped is cut into industrial wiping cloths -- rags -- at the Dill Center in Skowhegan and the Ervin Center in Waterville. The rags are sold for use at area businesses and by the bag for store customers.

A small portion of the left-over used clothing is sold to companies that donate or sell them worldwide, Grignon added.

The proceeds from these transactions are also used to pay the salaries of local employees, she said. Donated clothing that can not be used for either purpose -- approximately eight percent of the total -- is disposed of at an annual cost to the agency of about $40,000, Grignon said.

Grignon said Skills is an entirely local agency, while Planet Aid has offices in 19 states and serves people in Africa and Asia.

"I understand they do a lot of good work in third-world counties," she said. "My purpose in this whole thing is not to put down that agency, but I do think that people need to know if they want their money and their donations to go to third-world countries, then that is the place to put their donations.

"But if they want their donations, and the proceeds from their donations, to stay local, to help people with disabilities to continue their jobs, then they need to donate to us."

Doug Harlow -- 474-9534

dharlow@centralmaine.com