NEW PORT RICHEY
Elijah Bartz couldn't find the key for his lock on the storage unit Tuesday morning so he cut it off, swung open the door and peered into the darkness. The room was full. Two wooden twin bed frames. A tan sofa. Small lamps. Tall lamps. A metal rake and a shovel and a pink and purple tricycle. Dress shirts and suits from a lawyer. A houseful of items from an elderly man who had to leave it for a retirement home.
"I even got two antique sewing machines this year," Bartz, 32, said as employees from Goodwill Industries-Suncoast lined up in the hallway, ready to load everything into a 25-foot box truck.
Since 2009, Bartz has challenged himself to donate as much as he can to Goodwill, which raises money to help people train for and receive jobs. The quest began in 2009 when Bartz and his wife, Valerie, now 29, heard about Goodwill's Next Big Donation contest. The person who donated more than anyone else received two tickets to the 97X Next Big Thing concert, which the Bartzes always attended anyway. They cleaned out their closets and begged donations from friends and relatives. They hauled away unsold items from consignment shops and strangers' garage sales.
They turned in 2,665 pounds of stuff. That's more than a ton, and they clobbered the competition by 1,000 pounds. The next year, the Bartzes — who have a 5-year-old daughter, Kendall, who parts with some of her toys each year for Goodwill — had a goal of donating 2 tons and increased their efforts. Elijah Bartz, a subcontractor, rescued boxes of solid brass doorknobs from the trash at Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg, where his construction crew was hired to do renovations. He estimated those doorknobs added 200 pounds to his total, which was 4,516 pounds, more than his goal of two tons. They won again, with Bartz laying down a righteous challenge for himself:
To donate 3 tons in 2011.
It didn't happen. That year was a difficult time for them. Bartz's construction work dried up. Their Port Richey home went into foreclosure. They moved into a New Port Richey rental. Valerie Bartz still had her job as an administrator at a funeral home, so that helped as Bartz worked odd jobs, hoping for something steady.
Even with all of this going on, the family still worked hard to get donations for Goodwill — even though the charity stopped doing the contest, so there was no prize to be won. And what they turned in that year was substantial: 3,540 pounds. It was short of the 6,000 pounds needed to hit their 3-ton goal, but still an incredible amount.
"It's just phenomenal that somebody would be that supportive and give back," said Goodwill spokeswoman Chris Ward. "He's a busy young man. He's got a family.
"It's just outstanding."
In 2012, things started looking up. Bartz's work became steady again. Even though he was busier than ever, he still tried to spread the word about needing Goodwill donations. A friend said he would pay for the storage unit if Bartz would help clear out his father's home and haul away the donations. Bartz also hit closing time at yard sales to scoop up the unwanted leftovers.
The storage unit held boxes and boxes of things collected in a lifetime; vases, spatulas, a beige bath mat. An animal crate. A mustard yellow fan. A skillet. Coffeemaker. Toaster. Comforter. Radio. A wooden ladder. Hammock.
It took less than an hour to empty the room.
"We did good," Bartz said. "We filled the whole truck."
Bartz eyed it and, even though the truck was full, he felt like he was short of his goal.
He was right. The haul weighed 4,368 pounds — still a dizzying amount. But Bartz, who is a goal-driven person, wants to keep going. It's a hobby for him and he likes it that so many people get involved and help.
"I'd like to hit the 3-ton mark," he said. "It's going to be hard, but I'll do it eventually."
Bartz, with blue eyes and spiky brown hair, said he does this because it makes him feel good. He was a troubled youth, running with a rough crowd, and made some mistakes he regrets.
"This is my small way of giving back," he said.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.