Annual clothing exchange program
thrives under Norwich students’ care © Nov. 7, 2008, Norwich University Office of Communications

First-year Norwich University Cadet Steven Walz checks out tons of clothing collected for the Drop ‘n Swap, a recycling and community service event.

photo by Jay Ericson First-year Norwich University Cadet Steven Walz checks out tons of clothing collected for the Drop ‘n Swap, a recycling and community service event.

For Nicole DiDomenico, the annual Drop ‘n Swap, a two-day clothing exchange event at Norwich University, is “win-win-win.”

“The community wins, the environment wins, and Norwich wins,” said DiDomenico, director of volunteer programs for Norwich, the oldest private military college in the country.

Norwich students, whether military or traditional, also benefit from the opportunity to meet people who live near the Northfield, Vt., campus.

“It was refreshing to see that people from all different age groups and walks of life come out to help with this event,” said Amy Branstetter, a student and one of the event’s organizers. “They are willing to do anything to help.”

The late October event began with the “drop.” This year, 260 cars stopped by with 1,300 bags of clothes. Donors were greeted with classic Norwich courtesy and bags whisked away by energetic cadets who carried the clothing up the steps of the school’s cavernous Plumley Armory. There, more than 60 community volunteers, in six shifts over two days, worked into the evening to sort items according to category. They included clothes for women, men, children and babies, along with linens, costumes, jackets, shoes, hats, belts and purses.

Before doors opened the following morning, a line snaked around the corner. More than 700 people from surrounding states and Canada attended, trumping a previous record of 450. With free reign over 100 tables piled high with mountains of clothing, people left not with just a shirt or a coat, but with large, full bags, all free.

This recycling event keeps tons of textiles out of landfills while allowing families to clean out their closets. And for Norwich students, it offers a chance to be part of something big.

“It’s not just for Northfield,” said Branstetter, a sophomore political science major and AmeriCorps student team leader. “People from all over Vermont and even other states come every year. It’s incredible. Especially when we’re coming onto winter, this really helps families get coats and other things they may not be able to afford.” She helped plan and run the event under the mentorship of John Szewcyzk, a senior mechanical engineering major and manager of the Volunteer Programs office. The Drop ‘n Swap is one of many events she will take over when Szewcyzk graduates, and believes it is the one that impacts the most people.

Szewcyzk and Branstetter coordinate the event weeks in advance. They send letters to volunteers, organize food donations, field phone calls and partner with local nonprofit organizations. When the time rolls around, they set up tables, organize volunteers and make sure all runs smoothly. “We’ve pretty much got it down to a science,” said Szewcyzk, watching people digging through clothes and kids running between their parents. Branstetter worked alongside Szewcyzk, “just soaking it in,” while learning as much as she could as they answered questions and made sure volunteers were busy. “I tried to soak up as much of the logistics for this event from him, and I think that he has been an excellent teacher,” she said.

The event started almost two decades ago in Barre as a project of the Central Vermont Solid Waste District. Norwich took it on in 2004, with a space large enough and a top-notch volunteer base to draw from—Norwich students.

The event is held together by a solid organizational plan and a dedicated core of volunteers that DiDomenico described as “absolutely instrumental in the success of the event.” When Norwich inherited the project, the school was given a basic binder on planning, advertising and organization. Over four years, Szewcyzk expanded it into the Drop ‘n Swap organizational binder. Norwich now offers it to other schools and organizations as a resource to help host their own Drop ‘n Swap.

Johnson State College in Johnson, Vt., will host its first Drop ‘n Swap this spring, much to the delight of participants who used to have two to choose from. Courtney Close, assistant coordinator of community services at Johnson State, volunteered at Norwich this year. “My favorite piece was the amount of community involvement on campus,” she said. “The event was spectacularly planned and implemented. From signage, student volunteers providing the muscles, and the experienced community providing the sorting and running, it was all very well executed. I learned so much about the event but more importantly caught the spirit of the event.”

With the support of the Salvation Army, which takes all remaining items and sells them in its stores, gives them to partner nonprofits or sends the rags to a textile recycling plant, truly nothing goes to waste, said DiDomenico.

Szewcyzk agreed. “It’s great to bring the community onto the campus to interact with the students,” he said. “Plus, we have a lot of fun.”