Washington — ``Can you spare a dime?'' It's a request often heard on city streets.
Now, Washingtonians are hearing something new: ``Can you spare a yen? How about an extra franc?''
A new group here is asking returning overseas travelers for that extra foreign change jingling at the bottom of their suitcases or stored away until ``the next time'' they're abroad.
What's worthless tender in the United States is being put to use by an organization called Change for Good, which recycles foreign money for civic-affairs projects in the Washington area. Organizers have placed 12-inch, clear-plastic globes in strategic locations in stores throughout the capital in an attempt to collect change - even domestic currency - that will be put to use locally.
Change for Good got started by accident. Sandy Shea, a teacher working on his doctorate in Washington, stumbled across the idea when he spilled a box of foreign coins on his bedroom floor.
Figuring other people in town must have similar boxes, Mr. Shea and David Barker, a management consultant, decided something should be done with the stash of foreign cash.
Barker and Shea recalled how an organization seeking donations in South America circulated people in the international departure terminals of major airports there. Exiting tourists were asked to donate their spare local currency before leaving. The two Washingtonians liked the gimmick, and they began to research the possibility of a similar setup in the US.
The US Travel and Tourism Administration estimates that about $900,000 worth of foreign currency is brought into Washington by area residents returning from trips each year. A bank in London found that the average person returns from an overseas trip with $3 in his or her pocket, Change for Good says. The $3 ``ends up in jars with odd buttons and paper clips,'' observes Shea, who works full time on this project.
``Some people think they can just take their coins to an exchange house and get money, but most won't take them,'' he adds. Unless it is a large sum, exchange firms typically do not want to bother.
Those odd coins are ending up in the donation globes - so far in 16 locations - and adding up to about $1,000 a month from international travelers. In addition, a Change for Good awareness drive at Adams Morgan Day, Washington's urban Latino festival that draws nearly 200,000 people, raised another $1,000.
As the coins roll in, so do the ideas for spending them. Change for Good has already committed the first proceeds to a city youth hostel program that will help low-income and handicapped children to go on area tours with visiting international students.
Organizers want to direct future money to innovative programs that are just starting and are consequently short on money. ``Change for Good is predicated on helping organizations that don't get a lot of funding,'' says Shea.
The Banana Republic, a clothing chain that bills itself as a safari-type outfit catering to international travelers, has globes near its cash registers. Peering through the globe at customers in one location are 2,000 Mexican pesos, a few French francs, and assorted US currency.
``The response has been very positive by the public. People know what [the globes] are,'' says the manager of a Banana Republic store in downtown Washington. ``A lot of people ... put American money into the globe, but some foreign money, too.''
About 15 percent of the money collected by the organization is US currency, while the rest is foreign. ``You name it, we've seen it,'' Shea reports.
Of the money Change for Good has collected, about 90 percent is convertible into US currency. ``Soviet money is difficult to convert, [so] we can't do anything with it,'' says Shea.
The Soviet Union, as well as other East-bloc nations, has strict laws that forbid taking its money out of the country, he adds. The remaining money that cannot be exchanged does not go to waste. Some is quite old and may be of interest to collectors. Other coins are sold to jewelrymakers.
Change for Good is also focusing on another target - employees at internationally oriented companies. The Washington-based National Geographic Society, for example, known for sending writers and researchers into jungles and world capitals in search of stories and photographs, is conducting an in-house collection among its employees.
People sent overseas by National Geographic receive their tickets and necessities from the society's travel office in Washington. Returning travelers also check into the same office, at which time they can deposit their spare foreign currency in the Change for Good globe.