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September 1, 2014

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Workers at Goodwill warehouse sort through the good, bad, weird

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Tiffany Brown

Maria Cruz pulls a rack of Halloween costumes into their designated area Thursday at Goodwill’s Southern Nevada processing center in North Las Vegas.

Goodwill of Southern Nevada

Maria Cruz pulls a rack of Halloween costumes into their designated area at Goodwill of Southern Nevada's processing center in North Las Vegas on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2009.  Launch slideshow »

Southern Nevada Goodwill

At the Goodwill warehouse, racks of broken-in bluejeans are grouped by store destinations, excess stuffed animals are compressed and baled into cubes, and the enterprise has the must-and-dust smell of disturbed closets, thousands of them.

What came out of them is trundled in wire carts, squeezed, sorted and sent clattering down the line. This processing center in North Las Vegas is one of a few that Goodwill operates across the country and the only one with a conveyor belt for sorting goods.

And oh, the goods.

There are your standard Goodwill “gently used” goods. Clothing in all styles, sizes and vintages, old toys, old televisions (a lot more of those have been coming in since the switch from analog to digital broadcasting), purses, dishes and jewelry, costume and real — the good goods.

Then there are the odd and sometimes bad goods.

Definitely bad would be illegal or dangerous items such as hash pipes, brass knuckles, nunchucks, spears, swords, fireworks and a fair amount of guns and ammo (sometimes conveniently loaded).

Oh, and grenades. When warehouse manager Kandy Miller interviewed for her first job at Goodwill seven years ago, she happened to come in on a day someone donated a live hand grenade. Her job interview took place in the parking lot while the bomb squad did its work. Seven years later — to the day — somebody turned up another grenade (a dud, as it turned out) while Miller was on the job.

“I said, ‘Oh, you remembered my anniversary.’ ”

Goodwill donations are up in Las Vegas’ economic climate (remarkably like the real one: desolate, infertile). Partly this is from people emptying out houses and storage units by the U-Haul and partly it’s because Goodwill has added 10 donation sites in the past year. It’s had to — Goodwill’s donations fund its free services, and with unemployment at a heartbreaking 13.1 percent in Las Vegas, a lot more people are looking to Goodwill to help them find jobs. In 2006 Goodwill helped 600 people find jobs. This year, it’s on track for more than 1,000 job placements.

Most donations are fine, says Diane Hutton, a district manager and former manager of the warehouse. But what isn’t fine can be spectacularly bad, such as the truly expired food that often comes in a donated refrigerator, only to be discovered when it’s far too late. A refrigerator sits out behind the processing center, empty and with its door removed, airing out.

Live animals, though not accepted, are occasionally donated anyway. There was a baby desert owl left in a box at the back of the store on Eastern Avenue. “It was beautiful but scared to death,” Miller said. She took it to a wildlife rescue group. Various puppies, kittens and live birds have been adopted by Goodwill employees and acquaintances.

“No children, yet,” Hutton says.

(Although Miller remembers the time a pair of shoplifters were discovered in a store, fled and left their son behind. He was eventually picked up by his grandmother.)

Medical equipment that comes in contact with blood (diabetic testing and treatment supplies, usually) is no good to Goodwill. Every store has a biohazard trash can for such items. Speaking of biohazards, Goodwill also gets the occasional used and un-emptied diaper pail. The cremated remains of pets and humans turn up, too. When it’s human remains, Goodwill finds relatives when it can and gets in touch with understanding mortuaries when it can’t.

Some personal effects that you wouldn’t think Goodwill will touch, it will. Hutton once opened an old-fashioned pill box to find six human molars, almost solid with gold fillings — keepers. Miller currently has a set of false teeth weirdly heavy with gold. “There’s $200 in there. For that, for the company, I’ll touch ’em,” Miller says.

Especially valuable items — real jewelry, fur coats, a Les Paul guitar or a selection of old silver certificates found taped to the bottom of an antique partners’ desk and forgotten — go to Goodwill’s online auction site, shopgoodwill.com. Books, DVDs and CDs have their bar codes scanned and go online at goodwillbooks.com.

Vegas being Vegas, a certain amount of pornography gets turned in, not to mention some personal entertainment devices that can’t be described in a family newspaper. A certain number of whips and chains get turned in, too. (One hopes that if used, they’re gently used.) Hutton remembers one set of leather lingerie she thought would never sell. It did, after the customer tried it on.

But maybe the most surprising thing about Goodwill donations, Hutton says, is how considerate people are. Almost all of the donated clothes come in recently laundered or dry cleaned.

“It’s the only place I shop. I go to the mall to find out what’s fashionable, than I go back to Goodwill and buy it,” Hutton says.

Religious goods come in regularly — Bibles, rosaries, catechism books — but they sell quickly.

Battery-operated and noise-activated toys are welcome but eerie donations.

“You’ll be walking through the warehouse and you’ll hear” — Hutton shifts to a high, drawn out voice — “ ‘Elmo likes red.’ ”

And then you just can’t find the toy.

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