Babies grow so rapidly. One day they are in tiny infant clothes, and the next week they’ve moved to size 6 months and before long they are in toddler outfits. Sometimes they’ve reached a larger size before the tags have been removed. What can you do with all those tiny pink and blue outfits?
Pat Cleland, a member of the United Congregational Church of Holyoke, came up with a ministry to help clean out closets while helping young mothers.
“A few years ago, there was a lengthy article in a Springfield newspaper that marked Springfield and Holyoke as cities in Massachusetts with the highest teenage pregnancy rates. That bothered me a lot,” said Cleland. “My husband is a teacher and knew quite a few girls in the school system who were pregnant. I spoke with our youth director, Edith Jennings-Cope, who confirmed the prevalence of teen pregnancies in the area. She also informed me that the young moms got very little assistance for non-food items.”
Those thoughts were with Cleland when she stayed with her own pregnant daughter for a few weeks while her son-in-law served in Iraq. The two discussed the dilemma many times – to the point where her daughter asked what she was going to do about it. When Cleland’s granddaughter Rebekah was born, an idea struck.
“I know that many babies outgrow clothes before they get to wear them or wear them out. And fortunate parents receive an abundance of baby clothing from showers, or relatives, or co-workers,” she said. “I wanted to find a way those clothes could be used by others instead of sitting in the back of a closet.”
Cleland began collecting and gathering baby clothing from members and the community. Many people also donated cribs, car seats, and baby furniture. The church gave Cleland the use of two unused classrooms for a ‘store’. She asked a local Wal-Mart for donations of racks and they were happy to supply them to get the shop started. Pat, Edith, and a third volunteer set up the rooms like a clothing store, with outfits on hangers or folded neatly and put on shelves. Clothes are stocked according to season: spring/summer clothes and then fall/winter clothes. “Out of season” clothes are put in bins and stacked in a storage room until the next season. Cleland dubbed the shop “Rebekah’s Closet” – after her grandchild who was the inspiration for the ministry.
Cleland and Jennings-Cope went to different social service agencies in the city and handed out flyers, and told them the church had the resources, but would require something of the agency: letters of recommendation for the moms. Because of the prevalence of drugs and violence, Cleland did not want the Closet’s visitors to be selling the items on the street for drugs. “All they need is a letter from a local organization they are working with -- like The Bethlehem House, The Martin Luther King Center or D.C.F, and M.S.P.C.C,” said Jennings-Cope. “They present a letter and they can choose five outfits per child (sizes permitting) diapers, wipes, bottles, and anything else they might need that we have available.” No money is exchanged.
“Holyoke has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state of Massachusetts and is one of its poorest cities,” said Jennings-Cope. “Rebekah’s Closet fulfills a need for these young women. They often find themselves in a situation where they're having a baby and they don't know where, or have the means, to purchase clothes, car seats, diapers, wipes, strollers, cribs, and sometimes even a little thing like a stuffed animal. Thanks to very generous church and community members and the very hard work of Pat who organizes it all, moms in need can come to the church on Wednesday between the hours of 10:00 am and 2:00 pm and choose from what the Closet has to offer.”
The church members are very supportive of the ministry. Every 3rd Sunday of the month there is a second offering dedicated to Rebekah’s Closet. The youth group holds dances twice a month and all proceeds are earmarked for the ministry as well. The monies go to buying diapers and wipes – which costs about $100-150 for a month’s supply. Sometimes Cleland arrives in the morning to find cases of diapers left at the doorway anonymously.
“One of the church members who is elderly, sits in her home and sews the most beautiful quilts you have ever seen and she donates them to the Closet. So the families also often walk away with homemade quilts – which are much appreciated by the customers,” Jennings-Cope explained.
Although they don’t have everything in stock all the time, Cleland is amazed that they seem to have the most needed items whenever they are requested. One pregnant girl didn’t have a carseat and was worried because she didn’t know how she would even be able to bring her baby home. (Every state requires parents to have a car seat before leaving the hospital.) Luckily, there was one in stock.
According to Cleland, the girls are usually very respectful and appreciative. “We don’t judge and we don’t preach. We are just there to help. And when they go out the door, we say thanks for coming by… which usually evokes surprise because they are the thankful ones.”
“We know that we probably won’t get them into the church pews and many of them are not even faith-based, but we’re hoping that even though they may not be ready now, maybe when the baby gets older, they will think of us,” she said.
The kindness received at Rebekah’s Closet had a profound effect on at least one customer. One day a young girl came in with her counselor. The girl was looking very pregnant and hoping to find a bassinet or crib so her baby would have somewhere to sleep. A bassinet had just come in the day before. The girl was delighted; and later that day gave birth. Six months later she visited again. She not only returned everything she was given that first day, plus more, but she also brought her son with her so the volunteers could take a picture of one of their happy clients, and post the photo on the wall.
“It has been a blessing to the members and the community,” said Cleland. “We have helped over 325 girls in the last 3 years and hopefully we have helped raise stronger babies because they were provided with the necessities when they were infants.”
Pat can be reached at the church office at 413.532.1483 or firstname.lastname@example.org