A man grabs food at a United Way Good360 giveaway on Jan. 22, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Just before 9 a.m., dozens of people carrying empty boxes waited inside a warehouse in south Salem, staring at tables piled high with pet food, sheets, toys and pots and pans.

They waited for the go-ahead, then ran toward the goods with the energy of Black Friday shoppers streaming into Best Buy.

The twice-monthly “free-for-all” has the energy of a going-out-of-business sale at the mall, but no one pays for anything they take.

It’s part of Good360, a United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley effort to connect local nonprofit organizations, churches and schools to surplus items that would otherwise head to the landfill.

Monica Ramirez, a volunteer with Latino community resource organization Mano a Mano, stood next to a large pile she and other workers put together after about 20 minutes of shopping.

Many toys would become gifts for El Día Del Niño, a Mexican holiday honoring children celebrated April 30. Some kitchen supplies could help people start their own businesses selling tamales and other food, she said.

“It’s nice to find things of good quality,” Ramirez said, gesturing at an Instant Pot in a slightly dented box.

Monica Ramirez, center, grabs stocks up on kitchenware for Mano a Mano during a Good360 giveaway on Jan. 22, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Good360 is a national nonprofit organization that connects big retailers like Walmart with local nonprofits. United Way has been participating for years in Salem, but its program expanded dramatically in September when Amazon signed on.

“We’re getting a lot more donations,” said Colman Crocker, who manages the program for United Way. “This program kind of blew up overnight.”

He was hired in October to help manage the growth and has been picking up about 300 large boxes per week of merchandise since the holiday shopping season ended, many from the Amazon fulfillment center in Troutdale.

Outside the holidays, 125 boxes a week is more typical, he said.

The items are typically new or near-new but can’t be sold for a variety of reasons: cosmetic damage to packaging, customer returns or surplus stock. Companies save on disposal fees and may earn tax write-offs for donating, while local organizations can get items they’d otherwise not be able to afford.

Colman Crocker, Good360 program manager for United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley, kicks off a shopping day at the Shangri-La warehouse in south Salem on Jan. 22, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Crocker said the scale of the surplus items can be staggering. He doesn’t like to throw anything away, but sometimes does if nobody takes it after several offerings.

Wednesday’s giveaway included dozens of brand-new Nespresso coffee machines still in the box. Crocker said he learned they couldn’t be sold because the coffee pods inside were slightly expired.

The volunteers and nonprofit employees gathered in the morning had clear direction as Crocker turned them loose. Most made a beeline straight for one of three tables: bedding, kitchen materials and toys.

Once those were picked over, they turned to food, pet food, sporting goods, electronics and other miscellaneous items. By 9:30 a.m., the food table was completely bare.

Those present included the Willamette Humane Society, which cleared out much of the pet food stock; Church at the Park and Shangri-La, which serves people with disabilities and mental health issues.

Troy Gulstrom, pastor at Mehama Community Church, stood over a pile of toys destined for the church’s annual Easter egg hunt, which he said draws about 1,000 kids. The pile included about 10 triceratops toys.

“This will be a big help so we can bless our community,” Gulstrom said.

Troy Gulstrom, pastor at Mehama Community Church, organizes toys for the church's Easter egg hunt at a Good360 giveaway in Salem on Jan. 22, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Not everything that’s donated can be used, Crocker said. Wednesday’s offerings included dozens of whisky drinking sets with a glass and whisky stones – everything but the liquor.

In the past, they’ve gotten some items with baffling slogans on them. He recalled a coffee mug reading, “A massage therapist stole my heart.”

“I’m sorry, no one’s going to take that,” Crocker said.

Volunteers help unbox and sort the items to make it easier for organizations to find what they need.

Starting in February, United Way will change to a less chaotic model, Crocker said. Organizations can sign up for shopping times in advance. They’ll still get to come twice a month, but the goal is to limit the frenzy of everyone running for the same items.

“It’ll help with the parking situation,” Crocker told the group on Wednesday, drawing knowing nods from the crowd.

Crocker said the program always needs more volunteers to pick up and organize items, and can accommodate more organizations looking to pick up goods. Anyone interested can contact him at [email protected]

Reporter Rachel Alexander: (503) 575-1241 or [email protected]