When Dan Park became director of the Whitman College Physical Plant in 1992, he decided to turn trash into treasure. And the community is still reaping the rewards.

“Back then, there was a single warehouse for storage, so as things accumulated we’d pile them up and when it got too full, we’d spend two or three days with all the pickup trucks taking stuff to the dump,” he said. Many of the discarded items were still perfectly usable.  

He also wanted to find a way for the Physical Plant crew — made up of custodians, maintenance and construction workers, landscapers and others who perform essential functions but may feel somewhat disconnected from students and faculty — to be more involved in college life.  

Inspired by two Whitman students who were working at the Physical Plant at the time, one of whom was raising two daughters, the crew devised a better plan for dealing with surplus goods. “Now we save landfill space and the dump fees, we recycle and reuse, and we generate a little bit of money for the scholarship fund,” said Park, who has worked at Whitman for more than 35 years.

They hoped the proceeds would make a difference for students who were struggling, specifically “this group of students who are working really hard and have families and obligations” that their classmates who start college right out of high school might not. The first yard sale was held in September 1994, and has continued to fall on the Friday after Labor Day. The fund, since named the Non-Traditional Student Scholarship, has grown to over $300,000.

“The community loves these sales, and they are very popular with Walla Walla,” said Marilyn Ponti, director of financial aid services, the office in charge of administering the endowment. “What I love is these donations for the yard sale come from all the departments here on campus that no longer need a desk, file cabinet or something else. It also could be furniture from a residence hall that is no longer needed. So while the crew puts it all together, every member of Whitman including staff and faculty truly have a part in this sale.”

Jordan Spengeman is a recent recipient of the Non-Traditional Student Scholarship. He enrolled in Walla Walla Community College after serving in Iraq twice as a marine, then transferred to Whitman through the Gateway Program, which encourages low-income, first-generation or other students from diverse backgrounds to pursue a four-year degree.  

“I felt surprised and touched at the same time,” he said of learning he had been awarded the extra funding. “Often as non-traditional students, we feel like the outsiders on campus, and this made me feel that I was welcome and appreciated.”

That’s exactly the sense of connection Park was striving for when he first suggested the yard sale 25 years ago. And it’s why in addition to offering scholarship recipients jobs, the Physical Plant makes a point to invite them to monthly meetings, staff parties, picnics and holiday gift exchanges so the students can get to know the crew.

“We make them part of the family,” Park said.

Polly Officer, another recipient who also participated in the Gateway Program, was adopted out of the foster care system at a young age and grew up the tenth in a family of 17 kids. She has been supporting herself financially since she was 15, and was worried about taking out a lot of loans.

“I’m a really independent person. I don’t like asking for help,” she said. But given the cost of books and other expenses, “I didn’t know how I was going to swing it.” When Officer, a music major, found out she had gotten the Non-Traditional Student Scholarship, it was a weight off her shoulders. “Having it is really helpful to me so I can just focus on school.”

Spengeman, who intends to study psychology, added, “The support given by programs like this relieves a lot of stress from non-traditional students, as we’re often managing financial burdens that other students may not be facing.”

As for the sale itself, “It’s always a big, fun day,” according to Park. “It’s a great team-building exercise for the crew. They get all excited about it, and they all pitch in together. It’s a common project for all of us to work on.”

So in the words of Laurie Doohan, administrative assistant at the Physical Plant, “come shop, shop, shop!”

The yard sale is this Friday, Sept. 6, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 804 Penrose Ave.

Gillian Frew is the media relations strategist at Whitman College.

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