by Cathy Tollefson '83
Think of the biggest garage sale you’ve ever seen. Then think bigger. Stretch it out to fill half a football field. With all the needy people in the world, imagine the impact if you could get all that good stuff into the hands of people who really need it. That’s what David Corner did after a 1998 visit to the African nation of Ghana. He went there as a national officer and speaker with a United Methodist men’s group, but he left with a different mission, motivated by the poverty he saw. “I figured I could raise the standard of living in the country by 10 percent just by clearing out the excess in my garage and my friends’ garages,” he says.
Now, nearly 10 years later, a 20,000-square-foot warehouse in downtown Tacoma brims with medical equipment, computers, and school supplies. David’s The Gathering Project Inc. has sent bags of surplus wheat to an orphanage in Haiti, vegetable seeds to Zimbabwe, and an ambulance to Ethiopia. In 2007, with support from local and international Rotary chapters, David loaded 68 shipping containers and sent them all over the world, including to Hurricane Katrina victims and local groups and individuals. He supervises the packing of each container. “If you can run a cockroach through it—you haven’t packed it right,” he laughs.
“For most companies and hospitals,” he says, “it’s easier and cheaper to dump depreciated items than to recycle or find other uses for them.” David estimates that in the Northwest alone, $500,000 of medications and medical supplies are discarded every month, even though the drugs and equipment are still safe. This according to an April 2006 AARP article David keeps handy for anyone who is interested.
“Doctors, nurses, and workers in AIDS afflicted countries are always at risk because they don’t have latex gloves, for example,” he says. “If a box has been opened or is out of date, it gets tossed in the U.S.” The same is true of surgical kits packed for specific operations. If only one or two items is used, the entire kit gets pitched, even though the remainder is sterile and usable. David and his staff are there to collect what’s left. “The conditions people in emerging countries are working under are shocking, and we’re throwing away perfectly usable items,” he says.
David finds a need and fills it, but it’s not easy. Maneuvering through customs, the cost of shipping, and political unrest can hinder David’s mission. “I don’t ship a container unless I know the person or group on the other end,” he says. David now has contacts all over the world who help him get the gathered goods to those in need. He’s met most of those contacts. “How do you know how someone feels unless you look at their face? You’re not communicating on a humanitarian level otherwise,” he says.
At 72 years old, David wonders how much longer he can keep the project going. Before he started The Gathering Project he was working in the helicopter landing pad business, making a good living. Now most of his retirement income is spent trying to keep day-to-day operations going. Civic and church groups often help collect and move the merchandise, but finding funding is always an issue. “If I could afford someone in the office to handle the paperwork, I could be out gathering more goods and financial support,” he says. “The need is there. People are dying because they don’t have bandages.”
To find out more about The Gathering Project, write David at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 253.970.8297.