Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Story Continues

Hi Friends, hope everyone is staying well. Continuing on with the story of our new program, Suits & Smiles which provides men in need with job interview and work attire. December came and we finally moved into our new space. Now, I needed clothing, shoes and volunteers. I started reaching out again to people that had previously offered clothing donations. I also really needed rolling racks. From the beginning, I wanted to make sure that our space would always be neat and organized. It was important They are very expensive to buy, particularly good quality ones. I reached out to a friend, Zena, who sells LuLaRoe clothing in Grafton. She has been so supportive of our work and had offered to help with racks before. Zena gave me 2 great rolling racks and set up a FB group with other LuLaRoe reps who were looking to downsize their rolling rack collection. I ended up getting a bunch of heavy duty racks for super cheap- $25 for double racks and $15 for singles.

I also reached out to a lady named Corlis who runs a clothing collaborative, Clothes To Go from a church in North Attleboro. She had read the article about our program in last year's Milford Daily News and had reached out wanting to help with getting me the donations of men's business clothing that she had. We chatted on the phone and I was happy to hear that all of the items she had were already sorted. It makes such a difference to receive donations of items that have been sorted already. She said I come and take what I needed. She has been running her organization for many years and has donated over 2 million pounds of clothing to homeless people, low income families and other charities helping people in need. She was a bundle of energy and really a delight to meet. I picked up a trunk full of great quality items- men's suits/blazers, some of which were brand name, dress shirts, pants, ties and some shoes. The pants and shirts were already organized by size, so that made it even easier to sort when I got it back to our location. I was really impressed with what she had and started to make regular trips down there to "shop" for what we needed.

Over the month, I acquired some other donations. I purchased some items at a great discount through Good360, a website for charities that is a clearing house for companies making bulk donations of all sorts of products. The items are technically free, but Good360 has a handling fee. The fee is usually not too bad and you get brand new items. I was able to get Red Wing men's shoes/boots and in January purchased 3 boxes of absolutely beautiful Banana Republic men's wool dress pants for a tiny fraction of their actual cost.

I also spent time decorating the space- I hung some of my favorite pictures, mostly of flowers and landscapes- all pictures that I've taken. Our space is bare bones, but it was important to me to make it looks as warm and inviting as possible. Pictures of flowers bring me such joy and while I don't necessarily think that everyone else feels the same way, I hoped that the men coming in would find happiness in looking at them too. I bought some basic metal folding chairs, table and a great full length mirror. I also purchased a steamer, an item, that sad to say, I still have to figure out how to use. I was very budget conscious. There was definitely more decorating that I wanted to do, but it was important to keep costs down. I did feel that our space looked inviting, that was important to me.

In mid-December, Maddrey, the Director of Mass Hire Boston's Career Center, came to visit our space to check it out. Mass Hire is part of Goodwill, the organization that originally helped me find my space. He brought Dan with him, who runs the Boston Pre-Release employment program which helps people who are recently released from jail with finding employment. Maddrey wanted Dan to be able to refer men to our program. They were happy to see the space and really liked the clothing that we had so far.

By early January, I was ready to take our first clients! That story will be in our next blog- until next time friends...

Monday, April 13, 2020

A New Beginning

Greetings friends. It has been so long since the last time I've blogged. These are such crazy and difficult times with everything that is happening because of coronavirus. I started a new program for Project Smile, Suits & Smiles, and thought this would be a good chance to share the story behind it.

2020 started off as an amazing year. For almost 2 years, I had wanted to add a new program for Project Smile which would provide men in need with job interview and work attire. In the summer of 2018, I read an article in the NYT about an organization in New York City which was providing this service for men in need. Reading about the experiences of some of the men who received clothing was so heartwarming. I searched for organizations that provided men in the Boston area with job interview clothing, but I didn't find anything. I reached out to Kim Todd, the Executive Director of the Boston chapter of Dress for Success- I've known Kim since the very early days of Project Smile- she was one of our earliest supporters and was a huge help in my early days of grant writing. I asked her about the need in Boston area for our program which provided men with job interview attire. She said there was a tremendous need and was very encouraging.

Finding space for our program was tremendously difficult. I needed space in the greater Boston area which was accessible by public transit. It was important that people be able to access our service if they didn't have a car. Ideally, I needed a parking space for myself since I would be driving in. I spent a lot of time reaching out to people I knew that may be able to help and I spent a lot of time chasing down dead ends. By January 2019, I had almost given up on trying to find a physical space to run the program from and I decided that I would make it a mobile program, where I would load clothes into my car or buy a van and have a version of a fashion truck where I could go to different locations and set up a pop-up shop or, if I had a truck, could park the truck in a location and men could come and "shop" for clothes. I started reaching out for clothing donations- our local newspaper, The Milford Daily News, did a very nice story about the new program, and I received many calls and donations from local residents.

Within a few days of receiving donations, I realized that my mobile idea wasn't going to work. The reality was that I didn't have much help at that point, so I needed to be able to run the program by myself. I've always worked from an office in my mom's house, so I had taken over a spare bedroom for clothing storage. I soon realized that men's clothing, particularly suits are rather heavy- especially when you're trying to carry arm loads of them up and down stairs. There's also a lot more involved with properly storing/organizing clothing than stuffed animals. Clothes need to be hung up for the most part or neatly folded and they need to be organized by size.

I also quickly got overwhelmed with people donating clothing that was totally unusable. I know that many people donate with wonderful intentions, but I was receiving clothing that had moth holes, some clothes that were very old, smelled bad, some items that clearly weren't business clothing- (baseball caps, hoodies), etc. I did receive very nice items as well, but sorting through the clothing was becoming very distressing. It reminded me of my early years of Project Smile, when we received tons of stuffed animals, most of which could not be used. I realized that loading and unloading my car to set up pop-up shops on a weekly basis wasn't going to work. It was too impractical and wasn't going to be sustainable.

I also realized that I didn't want to drive a truck around Boston. I love driving, but the idea of trying to navigate a van or something the size of a food truck through Boston's congested streets and park it on a regular basis, was rather daunting. I had flash backs of the time I drove a moving van around Allston on one of my sister's college move-in days. A very stressful experience indeed.

I don't shy away from challenges, but the mobile program was going to be logistically too difficult to run by myself.  I decided to stop taking more clothing donations and went back to trying to find a permanent space. Months later, I was no further along in my search and had almost given up. Then, one day, in the middle of last summer, I received an email from a lady at Goodwill in Boston who had been helping me trying to help me find space since the year before. Goodwill and Mass Hire had been very supportive of what I was trying to do. Kathleen asked if I was still looking for space and recommended that I reach out to another lady who knew someone who had space. I made the phone call as soon as I got the email, but I didn't think it would really go anywhere- I had been feeling very discouraged. The lady on the phone was very nice, she told me to call this guy named Robert who was connected to the organization that managed the potential space located in Jamaica Plain. I thanked her, but still didn't think it would go anywhere. I called Robert, who was very pleasant and talked about a potential space that would be coming available later in the summer. It sounded good- located just a short walk from the Orange line T stop, had free parking as well. A few days later, I saw the space- it was great office space located in a housing development. I really liked it, but there was still an organization located there and running a program. I was trying not to get too excited, but this looked promising. However, a month later, I found out that the space was not going to be available. Robert told me that there may be another space that would work for us and he'd look into it. I was very discouraged at this point and felt like I would never find a home for our program.

In October, I reached out to Robert again and told him how much I needed to find space- I was feeling desperate but trying not to show it. A few days later, I went to see another space that was in the community center at the same housing development. The space was vacant-  a good sign and it was great. It was even better than the previous space, especially since it was in its own building. There had been a children's program there before, so it was painted in all sorts of crazy colors, but it had three rooms, lots of big windows and it was available! I negotiated a reasonable rent with the president of the organization that managed the space and eventually moved in on December 1. The wait was over and Suits & Smiles had found its home.

Well, that's all for today friends.. tomorrow, I'll let you know what happened after we moved in.  I hope you're staying well.