Next time you open your closet, rip out all those clothes you haven't worn in two years and stuff them into an old shopping bag to be donated to charity—a genuinely worthy thing to do—you may want to consider one thing?
Who will end up wearing those clothes?
With Second Chances, a non-profit founded and run by Somerville resident Andrea Shapiro, the answer is simple: People right here in the Somerville and Cambridge communities.
Filling a need locally
Second Chances works with other organizations in Somerville and Cambridge to provide clothes to those who need them.
It's easy to take clothes for granted, but if you're going through tough times and trying to get back on your feet, a lack of clothing can be a significant barrier.
"Most of the folks we're seeing have nothing and can't do the sort of things folks who have clothing don't even think of," said Shapiro.
She's talking about things like visiting the housing authority to apply for an apartment, going to a job interview or attending school. You need presentable clothes to do those sorts of things, and that's where Second Chances steps in.
How did it start?
In addition to running Second Chances, Shapiro is a non-profit management consultant, and it was through her work in this field that she noticed a specific need, which led her to start the clothing organization.
She would walk into the conference rooms of local service providers, such as homeless shelters or domestic abuse agencies, and see they were filled with donated goods. "They end up with these piles of clothing and dishes," Shapiro said. Such organizations didn't have places to store donated clothes, the staffing power to sort them or an immediate need for some of the pieces donated. For instance, they might have a room filled with winter clothes when it's summer or a collection of women's clothes when there was a need for men's clothes.
"The mismatch was just very apparent," said Shapiro.
Also, about eight or nine years ago, the Pine Street Inn, one of New England's largest homeless shelters and service providers, decided to outsource its clothing operations. That created a need for clothes here in Somerville and Cambridge.
Shapiro decided to do something about those connected needs: The need to collect and distribute clothes, and the need for a more organized and efficient approach to doing so.
She started work on Second Chances in 2003, received non-profit status in 2005 and has been running the organization ever since.
The numbers in a tough economy
Since 2005 and through the end of 2011, Second Chances will have collected, sorted and re-used about 326,000 pounds of clothes, which is "hard to visualize," Shapiro said.
A pound of clothes represents about three pieces, she said, stressing that's a very rough estimate—shoes weigh more than T-shirts.
More important, Second Chances, on average, helps about 400 local people each year. Last year it was up to 500 people, which Shapiro believes is tied to the sagging economy. This year, the numbers are looking more average, but the needs of people Second Chances helps are "deeper." Instead of three outfits of clothing, for example, people now need six or seven outfits.
Long-term unemployment, an inability to pay the bills and foreclosure have finally taken its toll on some people, Shapiro thinks. "They're coming to us having been hanging on by a thread for a very long time."
She added, "Folks we're seeing this year have been hanging on for a little longer," which increases their needs when they seek help.
As is typical with non-profits that help the most needy, when the economy turns sour and people need services the most, donations and money dry up. In 2010, when Second Chances had more people to serve, clothing donations dwindled, as did financial contributions.
"It does seem to mirror what's going on with the economy," Shapiro said, perhaps with a bit of a "lag." This year, clothing donations are back to normal, but financial contributions are still down.
Second Chances collects clothes through public clothing drives, where it works with local businesses and non-profits to organize donation events. It also has colorfully painted metal collection bins in Cambridge and Watertown, with hopes to put one in Somerville in 2012.
The organization's website has a schedule of donation events and directions to Second Chances donation bins. About 90 percent of Second Chances' donations come through the bins. Somerville Patch usually includes Second Chances events in the events calendar.
With donations in, Second Chances sorts the clothes (some of it is sold wholesale to support operations; some of it is in poor condition and gets recycled). It then works with existing organizations in Somerville and Cambridge to provide clothes to individuals who need it.
One person may need a winter jacket. Another may need a decent pair of slacks for a job interview, or a pair of shoes. By partnering with local service providers—about 15 of them—Second Chances is able to get the right clothes to the right people at the right time.
Need for men's clothing
"Our highest unmet need is for men's clothing," Shapiro said. For whatever reason, the organization seems to receive more women's clothing. Also, "Men's clothing, when we get it, is often in worse condition."