Most of us take for granted that we have the appropriate clothes to wear to work, to stay warm, and to feel good about ourselves. But that’s not the case for people in need who depend on the social service system to inch by.
Jill Aschkenasy was an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan when she was exposed to the daily struggles facing the underserved in this country. Once her four children were school age, she decided it was time to serve, and spent two years talking to people within the Philadelphia social service community to determine what needs were not being met. She discovered that clothing, a most basic need, was in short supply and obtaining clothing was also mired in a maze of roadblocks and referrals.
Ms. Aschenasy founded Our Closet in 2012. It acts independently from other social service agencies and no referrals or paperwork are required to participate.
The goal of Our Closet is to meet a basic need for the underserved so they can confidently focus on handling other stressors such as securing a steady source of income, child care, or finding permanent housing solutions.
Our Closet runs “pop-up shops” that simulate a true shopping experience but the only difference – all items all free. Shoppers receive individualized attention from volunteer sales associates and are treated with dignity. Clothing is displayed on tables and hanging racks, transforming partner-provided spaces into small boutiques. The donated clothing is clean, quality merchandise that is sorted like a traditional store – by gender, by age, by item, by season.
Every Tuesday, men, women, and children line up to receive an entry number; each week from 100 to 150 individuals are served; and more are often turned away. About eight to 10 people may enter the pop-up store at one time and they are assisted by volunteer shopping associates who help people choose up to five items. There are dressing rooms and mirrors and stacks of clothing, shoes, and accessories. Every “shopper” is treated respectfully.
Making an Impact on the Community
While living in a nearby men’s shelter, Aaron first came to Our Closet during autumn 2012. Though clothing may have been his magnet, he quickly began getting involved by helping to set up and take down the store and explained the services to others in need. Week after week, Aaron would come to the shop, sometimes gathering five items for himself or his family, and other weeks, simply helping other shoppers find items for themselves.
In November 2012, during the annual Our Closet Coat Day, a gentleman named Virgo rushed in; he was from the same shelter as Aaron, but had custodial duties that prevented him from arriving earlier. Virgo was disappointed that after more than 400 coats were distributed, there were no coats remaining that fit him.
Aaron decided to help. He reached into his own shopping bag and handed Virgo the beautiful shearling coat he received an hour earlier from Our Closet. That moment was incredibly powerful, and tapped into the immense level of generosity, self-awareness, and connection Aaron had in relation to Our Closet. Aaron was needy, but he was so appreciative that Virgo cleaned the very shelter where Aaron himself resided, that he felt the urge to say thank you.
Shortly after this incident, Aaron stopped visiting Our Closet. However, a new shopper, who introduced herself as Aaron’s mother, shared that Aaron had secured a job nearby, and suggested that she come to Our Closet while facing a period of instability.
Aaron had fulfilled his basic need of clothing; used his time, energy, and money wisely; and found gainful employment. He had moved on, but expressed his gratitude and continues to refer others to Our Closet.
The current weekly pop-up shop is based out of LIFT-Philadelphia, an anti-poverty organization in West Philadelphia. Our Closet has recently expanded its partnerships to host additional pop-up shops in other neighborhoods.
An average of 50 bags of clothing are collected every month. Volunteers range from local high school students, community groups, and their parents, to professional groups looking to plug into the community. Partners help collect clothing donations, host donation days, and expand the donor base.
A long range plan is for Our Closet to be like a mobile pantry but with free clothes, instead.
How to help
Men’s large sizes and all men and women’s sizes are needed; shoes are especially needed.
- If you live/work in the Philadelphia area, collect clothing donations from coworkers and friends, volunteer to sort clothes.
- Start a clothing drive in your own community.
- A tax-deductible financial donation helps to sustain pop-up locations.