They lined up early inside the historic Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia on Wednesday morning, like it was a once-in-a-lifetime sale.
Except all the donated clothes that volunteers had carefully laid out were free. Ties for men. Jewelry for women. Tables full of quality slacks and jeans and stylish sweaters and blazers, sneakers shoes and a few purses. Friendly volunteers led by program manager Shauna Ekezie offered alternatives if the size or style wasn’t working.
Started by Jill Aschkenasy in 2011, the idea behind Our Closet, a program of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia, is to bring clothing to people who need it, where they need it.
It didn’t take long to realize that this wasn’t just some clothing program, charitable and compassionate as it was.
It was a window into the economic and emotional realities faced by many Philadelphians.
Unemployment, underemployment. Hunger, homelessness, addiction, mental illness.
But also — because too often that’s all people see, right? — resilience and hope and happiness and humor. And love.
Yep, love — right there at one of the pop-ups held throughout the year in multiple locations. Charlotte Haley and Herman McKeiber met at one of the clothing pop-ups about a year ago. They left Wednesday before we had a chance to talk, but I caught up to the couple on their bus home. They indeed were an item, Haley confirmed. But while the clothes were free, her heart wasn’t. “I didn’t give him my number the first time we met.”
Doreen, who asked that I didn’t share her last name, found a different kind of love at the pop-ups, the kind of humanity she desperately needed after serving three years in prison for retail theft in 2016.
She was released, she said, with little more than an oversized pair of sweats and sneakers and a t-shirt imprinted with “ Department of Corrections.” “I didn’t even have a bra," she said. "I got one here, a new one.”
There was also Earvin Royal, a regular reader of my column, thank goodness, so he was spared the pitch I offered others, how I was representing a lot of reporters in my newsroom who genuinely wanted to hear their stories. Royal was between jobs, so he was eyeing gym clothes to get in shape before the job hunt began again. But Angela Brooks was in the thick of looking for a job, so she not only searched for good interview clothes, she asked me to share that if someone is looking for a smart, driven administrative worker with an impressive resume, she’s available.
And then there was Janet Geathers. On disability and a fixed income, she walked half an hour to get to the pop-up, but she didn’t mind. The fresh air cleared out her lungs and her mind. Plus, she was rocking the sweetest pair of Air Jordan sneakers she got from a previous pop-up.
What’s offered at Open Closet aren’t shabby handoffs – nothing like the clothes I passed from a donation box throwing up wet and soiled clothes on the way to the church. There are multiple drop-off sites in the city and the suburbs, including one at Congregation Rodeph Shalom Synagogue on North Broad St. and Rebel Yoga Studio and Apparel Store in Chestnut Hill.
The mission is simple: They won’t accept anything they wouldn’t wear themselves.
“Really this whole thing is a blessing,” said Geathers before heading off to grab some food at the church’s soup kitchen, the Advocate Café, with a woman she’d just met at the pop-up. “Shopping and lunch,” she laughed. “What’s better than that?”