Last April, Cara Overland, general manager at La Quinta Inn & Suites in Duluth, received a phone call from a student at the College of St. Scholastica. The student asked about collecting excess hotel toiletries as part of a class project creating care packages for CHUM.

After two weeks of collecting, Overland said she was astounded by the bags of supplies that accumulated.

"We collected so much in two weeks, and we usually throw it all in the trash," Overland said. "I thought to myself, 'this is so wasteful.' "

Overland decided to act on that thought. In partnership with Head of the Lakes United Way, a survey was sent to local agencies and charities asking if there was a need for hotel amenities such as shampoo, lotion and linens. The answer, according to Overland, was a resounding "yes."

The demand was obvious, but a supply of items to meet that demand had yet to be found. So Overland gave a presentation at a meeting with area hotel managers, hosted by Visit Duluth, to see if they were willing to fill the need. Many hotels immediately signed up.

"Most of us in the room thought it was a great idea," said Jim Paquette, general manager at Canal Park Lodge. "We had a strong desire to participate in a program that helps people in our local community and the agencies that do that."

Shampoo and lotion bottles collected for the Heart of Hospitality Project. (Clint Austin / News Tribune)
Shampoo and lotion bottles collected for the Heart of Hospitality Project. (Clint Austin / News Tribune)

From that meeting, the Heart of Hospitality Project was underway. Since January, hotels have partnered with local agencies, directly donating gently used supplies such as lotion, shampoo and linens.

"This (project) is unique because it partners one hotel with one organization," Overland said. "We try to make it as simple as possible."

As a general rule, hotels have long disposed of personal care items that were opened, even if most of the product was left. Sheets and towels that had small signs of wear often were thrown away, too. The Heart of Hospitality Project aims to give those gently used items a new purpose.

"It was really incredible to see Northland hotels and agencies of hospitality coming together for the greater good," said Princess Kisob, program director at Neighborhood Youth Services. "We're helping save the environment because we're eliminating waste, but we're also helping populations that are really in need."

Neighborhood Youth Services is partnered with Pier B Resort. The donated items from the hotel are given to youths and families within the community, often in the form of care packages. Staff at the hotels make sure each bottle is at least three-fourths full and that all linens are cleaned and free of any rips or stains.

"These are items that some people might purchase and not even think about," Kisob said, "but $3 or $4 for shampoo or toothpaste is a lot of money."

While the program does help cut down on hotel waste, Paquette said that hotels participate for a different reason.

"All of us at one time or another might need a helping hand, and if you're in the position to lend a helping hand, by all means you should do it," Paquette said. "I think that's more the philosophy of why all the hotels are doing it."

The project is still in its beginning stage, but Overland said she hopes it will eventually serve as a model for other cities.

"I'm very happy with how it's gone so far," Overland said. "Everybody is really committed to it."

Read more about the Heart of Hospitality Project at http://theheartofhospitalityproject.wordpress.com.