Don’t Throw It Away creator remembers Appalachian’s support

As a student, Natalie (Knight) Rogovin ’03 started an Appalachian community service tradition and now teaches community service to children and youth

As a freshman volunteering in the Women’s Center in spring 1999, Natalie (Knight) Rogovin ’03 got an idea that has influenced Appalachian State University’s culture of social justice and community service and started a tradition that continues to benefit local non-profits.

She was reading a newsletter from OASIS, the local domestic violence shelter, which included a request for donations of gently used household goods. She remembers thinking, “Half this stuff is in our dorm.” Later, as she planned her return home for summer, she quickly realized not all her possessions could go with her. Her solution: Put donation boxes in the residence halls and give the excess items to OASIS.

In the following years, she turned her idea into an annual project. In May as students cleared out of the residence halls, she and her friends would collect unwanted carpets, shower caddies, TVs, clothes, vacuum cleaners and other items – sometimes crawling into Dumpsters to retrieve them. The next fall, they’d sell their stockpile to returning students at rock bottom prices. The projects became known as Don’t Throw it Away and The BIG Sale. Each year, the two projects divert about 70 tons of trash from the landfill and raise more than $20,000 for local charities.

“I don’t think small,” admitted Rogovin, who majored in history, secondary education. “I had this crazy idea and at all levels people at Appalachian said ‘You can do this!’ My voice was never shut down.”

Her empowering experience has shaped not only Appalachian’s culture, but also her own career. For nine years, she worked as a community service and social studies teacher in New York City, inspired to cultivate in young people what she herself learned at Appalachian: that caring for others in small and large ways is possible and can make the world a better place. This summer, she’ll start a similar position in Atlanta.

A place to learn and grow

The evolution of Don’t Throw It Away wasn’t always smooth. Rogovin said OASIS received too many donations the second year and had to sell much of them. The first year, Appalachian’s housekeeping staff was burdened with left-behind items after she and her friends stopped collecting and left for the summer. “I learned that life on campus didn’t stop just because my friends and I went home,” she recalled.

These hiccups, though, taught her valuable lessons and created opportunities to collaborate with housekeeping, campus police, residence life and other campus offices to make improvements. Appalachian gave her room to make mistakes, learn from them, and then gave her a second chance, she said.

“I’m grateful for the environment of Appalachian,” Rogovin said. “No one dismissed me. In retrospect, I see how it could have been a different experience.”

In those early years, she also collaborated with a Taft University student leading a similar project called Dump and Run that was starting to gain national momentum. That student gave Rogovin organizational pointers and together they came up with the idea of The BIG Sale. The first BIG Sale took place in 2001 at Duck Pond Field and raised $3,342.27 for the Watauga County Department of Social Services Foster Care program. It quickly grew, as did Don’t Throw It Away, and the sale moved indoors to Legends nightclub on campus. The projects soon became official events of the ACT office (Appalachian and the Community Together), which organizes service experiences for students.

Leadership lessons learned

As a budding leader, Rogovin said she had to open herself to other people’s input. She accepted help from a detail-oriented friend – Keri Jackson ’02, a seasoned Habitat for Humanity volunteer – who could channel her big ideas. With guidance from faculty/staff mentors Lee Williams, Jenny Koehn and Jim Street, she learned how to meaningfully engage others in supporting the project’s mission. She formed committees and delegated. “That’s probably why the project is still there,” Rogovin said.

She remembers looking out at the volunteer staff of Don’t Throw It Away one year and realizing she knew none of the students – the project had grown far behind her circle of friends. “It was so cool to me that people would do this service project. I was with like-minded service folks,” she said. With a laugh, she said she remembers feeling confident in her senior year that the project might live beyond her time at Appalachian when three guys camped out all night to be the first in line for The BIG Sale.

– Natalie (Knight) Rogovin ’03

Rogovin still feels grateful for the support she received at Appalachian. Her mentors “empowered me and did so in a way that it was on me to make this successful. I had to be accountable, and that has coached me in my life and my career.”

If her projects had ended when she graduated, “I would have been disappointed,” Rogovin said. “To know it has become such a success, I never would have imagined.”

Reaching out, giving back

Today, Appalachian is nationally known for its civic engagement. Since 2008, the university has held community engagement classification from the Carnegie Foundation. Appalachian is one of 361 institutions across the U.S. including 11 other UNC system schools that holds this classification.

Is Rogovin excited to see this development? “Yes,” she said, as she believes in the value of civic engagement. After career stints as a U.S. Senate staffer and New York Times employee, she credits her Appalachian service experience for helping her land a community service teacher position in a New York City public school that emphasizes public service and has a 200-hour community service requirement of its students.

In her nine years there, she taught a course called Community Action Now for high school freshmen that included the basics of fundraising and planning and implementation of a small service project. When the school’s funding was diminished, she returned to teaching social studies but continued to incorporate service-learning and social justice in all her classes, teaching students how to critically examine why social justice issues emerge. “Don’t just volunteer with agencies addressing AIDS. Understand who gets AIDS, why, how they get access to health care,” she explained. “These problems don’t come from nowhere.”

Over her career, she’s been encouraged by how service has evolved in many communities. “It used to be, service came from a point of privilege – ‘I have so much that I need to help others.’ The empathy wasn’t there. As Martin Luther King said, everyone can be great because everyone can serve. To understand empathy and social justice, it has to come from a genuine place of performing a service for others versus doing it because it might look good on a resume.”

Now she’s bringing her expertise to the Southeast, having recently moved to Atlanta. In July, she starts work at the private Paideia School as director of service learning and civic engagement for grades K-12.

Grateful for a meaningful career trajectory, she reflects fondly on where she got her start. “I chose Appalachian because of how it felt on campus – people looked happy and smiled at me. Appalachian is a special place,” she said, “and I’m glad I could contribute to that.”