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Dumpster divers search for back-to-school treasures

Jon Stepanian, president and CEO of the nonprofit

Jon Stepanian, president and CEO of the nonprofit Community Solidarity, Inc., and co-founder of the free food-sharing program Long Island Food Not Bombs, went Dumpster diving in search of school supplies. (Aug. 21, 2012) Credit: Erin Geismar

Jon Stepanian peered over the rim of a metal dumpster and flashed around a stream of light from the small flashlight he held overhead.

The Dumpster’s contents were in cloudy plastic bags, and in one, he noticed some small black boxes, inside of which could be something promising.

“I think that’s acrylic paint,” he said, musing to his companions on what a good find that would be. “Should I go in and check it out?”

With cat-like agility, the 28-year-old Huntington man leaped over the side of the Dumpster and landed with both feet shin deep in garbage bags. He ripped open the bag and extracted the black boxes, which were, in fact, four sets of acrylic paint.

“Empty,” he said, tossing them aside. “Well, it was worth a shot.”

Stepanian, president and CEO of the nonprofit Community Solidarity, Inc., and co-founder of the free food-sharing program Long Island Food Not Bombs, was looking for school supplies. He said the average American family spends about $600 every fall on its back-to-school needs.

“September can be a really tough month because parents are trying to pay for school,” he said, “and that takes away from their ability to pay for other things.”

So Stepanian and volunteers from his organizations run an annual back-to-school drive hoping to get as many donations of supplies as possible to give away to Long Islanders in need. Last year’s supply drive garnered an estimated 10,000 pounds of merchandise and helped about 1,300 families, he said.

To supplement that drive, the group turns to Dumpster diving to help their cause.

On Tuesday night, a group of seven volunteers met at about 10 p.m. with a plan to hit certain chain stores around Long Island they know toss out plenty of usable items.

Two teams drove around for hours, digging through trash and avoiding security guards for a couple carloads of key finds.

Among the items saved, the group was excited about finding two filing cabinets, stacks of colored paper, badminton racquets, folders, a calculator and packages of pens and mechanical pencils — all in mint condition, most never removed from their packaging.

“Once you do it, it’s really amazing the things that you find,” said Karen Sackett, 54, of Moriches, who volunteers at the Food Not Bombs food shares in Farmingville and Hempstead, and had gone on one other Dumpster diving expedition before Tuesday night.

Stepanian said the reason unused items are thrown out vary, but often they are victims of surplus. He said stores that are closing are gold mines, but so are stores that are opening, because often they overcompensate.

Stepanian said some stores are more diver friendly, even picking out “the good stuff” and leaving it in a more accessible place, while others go to lengths to make sure the products they throw out are unusable.

Stepanian said he once found 12 digital projectors still in boxes, but when he brought them home realized their cables had been sliced. He rewired every one of them and donated them to after-school programs.

“Part of our mission is to raise awareness about how much waste there is in our society,” he said of Food Not Bombs, which he started with friends about six years ago. “We really try to make this an eye-opening experience.”

But in reality, Dumpster diving is not enough, and the group relies heavily on donations to its back-to-school drive. He said they will begin handing out school supplies to children at their food share locations, including Hempstead, Huntington, Coram, Farmingville, Wyandanch and Bed-Stuy, this week and continue throughout September.

Rose Zacchi, 54, of Ronkonkoma, who participated in Tuesday’s hunt and also volunteers throughout the week at food shares, said she does it for the children.

“It’s for the kids,” she said. “When you do this for a while, then you have faces to go with the things that you find. Some of them don’t have anything, and you can give them something.”

School supply donations can be dropped off at any of the Long Island Food Not Bombs food share locations. For a list of locations and the organization’s hotline number, visit

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