CALIFON, N.J. — In 2013, when Swedish telecom equipment and software giant Ericcson decided to renovate its Piscataway campus, it forewarned employees to plan on working in a paperless office.
In the process, the company was ridding the offices of file cabinets, whiteboards, file folders and related equipment.
For longtime worker Laurene “Lari” O’Donnell, it led her to ask a colleague: “What are we going to do with all this stuff?”
The co-worker assured O’Donnell that most everything would be recycled, but when O’Donnell saw dumpsters overflowing with books, papers and much, much more, the Hunterdon County woman led a recycling effort few workplaces could arguably match.
Nearly five years later, more than 125 Ericcson employees have rescued, collected, cataloged and sent off more than 180 tons — or 360,000 pounds — and donated the items to nearly 250 nonprofits throughout much of New Jersey, two other states and three foreign countries.
Some items have wound up at schools and offices in the Diocese of Metuchen.
Someone at the company dubbed the volunteer effort “The Big Sweep.” And O’Donnell, an energetic woman who lives in Lebanon and is a member of St. Theodore Parish in Port Murray, has led the mightiest broom of all in the push to donate everything you could think of for an office, from dictionaries and desktops, typing tables and — most recently — office furniture.
“People ask me, ‘Why do you do this?'” O’Donnell told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen, in an interview at St. John Neumann Church in Califon. The parish is one of the congregations receiving free office supplies via The Big Sweep.
“I have trash passion,” she said. “And it’s not trash. They are really good, usable things that wind up in the trash.”
Father Abraham Orapankal, pastor at St. John Neumann, holds up O’Donnell as a model Catholic who is putting into practice what Pope Francis has preached in “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” his 2015 encyclical about fostering a culture of community, environmental sustainability and resource conservation.
“I told him we had supplies and said, ‘If you know of any other churches'” to let her know, O’Donnell recalled of her conversation with Father Orapankal.
St. John’s parishioners, Father Orapankal said, practice protecting and nurturing the environment. The parish runs the “Project Earth Garden” that provides fresh produce and more for congregation and to benefit nonprofits. The parish also is considering the installation of a bee colony for the garden.
Father Orapankal said he contacted Monica P. Demkovitz, director of Metuchen’s diocesan Office of Properties and Facilities Ownership and Management. That led to more drop-offs at Catholic Charities; Bishop George Ahr High School in Edison and Immaculata High School in Somerville; and several other parishes and other diocesan recipients.
Of O’Donnell’s work, the pastor said, “This is the merging of the sacred and the secular.” He wrote a memo to Metuchen Bishop James F. Checchio earlier this year asking him to publicly recognize her work.
The Big Sweep’s accolades include a 2017 Environmental Champion Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s New York regional office.
O’Donnell, who retired last year as a software product and project manager, said marketing the program both within the company and on the outside has helped organizers find places to forward the items.
For example, the group learned about a Long Island, New York, podiatrist who grew up in Haiti and delivered supplies to the impoverished Caribbean nation. Others came forward with connections to Liberia and Belize, and representatives of those countries gladly accepted the free items. O’Donnell and Big Sweep members also have found home for the forlorn trash in Pennsylvania and New York state.
The Big Sweep, like any volunteer-run program, could not have happened without the help of members of various parishes. O’Donnell calls core members “Dumpster Divas.” Many volunteers also came from the company and a volunteer group called Telecom Pioneers Chapter 99.
“It’s the right thing to do,” O’Donnell said of the recycling effort. She speaks about The Big Sweep with an unbridled enthusiasm like that of horse racing fans rooting on Triple Crown winner Justify at this year’s Belmont Stakes.
What’s wrong, she said, is pumping tons of office items into a landfill instead of giving them to people in need.
“It makes no sense,” O’Donnell said. “I don’t want to leave this a worse place. We should leave this earth in better condition than we found it, or at least as good as we found it.”