The always popular Reuse Center in Chamisal opened its doors again in September and in the last five months has proved itself a vital part of the renewed energy to make sure the communities in the southern reaches of Taos County are taken care of by, and for, their own residents.
The Reuse Center, a space where folks swap clothes, books and other stuff for free, shares its residence with the Taos County transfer station at the end of Old Dump Road on the outskirts of Chamisal.
The center is now open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m.- 3:30 p.m. with a volunteer always on hand to take and sort donations and introduce people to the space.
Neatly arranged shelves of books share the west wall of the one-room building with shelves of plates and dishes. Button-down shirts and dresses have their own rack and pants are arranged in orderly piles, reminiscent of an old-fashioned general store or J.C. Penney. A third of the floor space is devoted to kids: clothes, toys and books.
When The Taos News dropped by Friday (Jan. 12), a 1,000-piece Harry Potter puzzle, fondu pot and a binder of hand-written astrology notes were among the more random items ready for the taking. An elderly woman and her adult daughter from Rodarte donated a couple bags of classic Levi jeans and squares of quilting fabric.
"Here in America, it's a consumer society. There's too much stuff," said Jean Nichols, the center's de facto volunteer manager. "The basic idea was to save good, reusable things that were going into the landfill."
The center is essential to one arm of the trifecta of cutting the amount of waste: reduce, reuse and recycling.
Take a look at clothes. Every year Americans discard millions of tons of textile waste. Those landfills aren't faraway places, divorced from the immediate environment and ecology of Northern New Mexico. The actual landfill is an hourlong drive to Taos although litter turns arroyos and mountain roads throughout the county into unofficial dumps.
If environmental arguments don't convince people, economic ones might. The clothes, dishes and toys at the Reuse Center are free for the community.
And as fiber artists such as Reuse Center volunteer Violette Alby know, old clothes are often better quality and more valuable than new "fast fashion" products.
The reuse ethic -- and aesthetic -- may be viewed as a holdover from the hippie commune days, but Alby doesn't think they've outlived their usefulness. "This is the future," she said.
When the center opened in 1999, Bill Clinton was president and the idea of building with recycled materials -- bales of shredded, glossy mail ads -- was a novelty. But it was also the logical evolution of the work of an organization known at the time as Mountain Ambulance Service.
Nichols said the group decided to start its own ambulance services in 1982 around Peñasco because, as a remote "orphan" community "over the hill" from the rest of Taos County, the government wasn't providing it at the time. The county took over ambulance service in 1986, and the organization took on other projects, such as fighting commercial logging in Llano, organizing private recycling services, doing art programming and opening the first iteration of the center.
The nonprofit tired of explaining to financial backers why an ambulance service was doing things such as operating an art gallery, so they reorganized in 2016 as MAS Comunidad. The Reuse Center was closed for more than a year and a half because of health and environmental concerns from the county and state government. But all the while, Nichols and other members of MAS Comunidad negotiated to get it in service again.
"We just kept persevering," Nichols said.
Taos County Manager Leandro Cordova named the re-opening of the Reuse Center among Taos County's accomplishments of 2017, noting the hard work of the solid waste department, from its director to the attendant at the Chamisal transfer station.
Looking ahead, both Alby and Nichols said they hope to eventually formalize the volunteer manager's duties into a paid position.
Yet their vision for the Peñasco Valley and the nonprofit includes at its heart essential community services that have come and gone from the area. They already operate a food bank but hope to open a "wellness plaza" at the former La Jicarita Charter School in Peñasco.
They also used to run an office space where people could get help navigating social services, such as income-based housing, utility and medical programs.
"That's been greatly missed," Nichols said, adding she hopes that becomes part of the wellness plaza. A makerspace is also a possibility for the three empty trailers in the center of town. Nichols said the nonprofit is seeking ideas and involvement from the surrounding communities for what locals want to see in that newest community space.
In a community where creativity flourishes and a helping hand is sure to be found, scrounging up the funding to make these programs sustainable is likely to be the biggest challenge. "We don't want to lose more resources," Nichols said.