By Maria de Bruyn
The very cold days we experienced in January this year made many of us grateful for warm dwellings and cold weather clothing. As of this writing, our temperatures have risen again, though rains have made it still feel chilly. And the coming weeks may yet bring us another round of real winter weather, making many of us prefer to be indoors.
Unfortunately, a sizeable number of our Chapel Hill/Carrboro neighbors don’t have permanent shelters with warm meals. That’s why volunteers are helping meet the clothing and food needs of such town residents at the Amity Clothes Closet and Food Pantry.
Earleen Burch has served as director of the Clothes Closet since 2015 for three supporting entities: Amity United Methodist, Carrboro United Methodist and University United Methodist Churches. The Clothes Closet is open on Mondays and Thursdays from 10:00 am to noon. The Food Pantry, managed by Rachel Kohr, is accessible on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month, at the same time of day.
The Clothes Closet/Food Pantry is located at the intersection of MLK Jr. Blvd. and Estes Drive, where it is easily accessible by bus lines and relatively close to temporary shelters managed by the Inter-Faith Council (IFC). Currently, some 15 volunteers serve about 130 visitors seeking clothing and about 70-80 people needing food each month.
The Clothes Closet had a total of 1,656 clients in 2023. When it began, the available apparel filled one room. Now, three rooms offer men’s, women’s, and children’s clothes donated by churchgoers and other community members. One room also houses toiletries, donated bedding, and backpacks and suitcases, which are needed for people without homes to carry their most important possessions.
When I recently brought a few sweaters, jackets, blankets and bedspreads, I remarked to a volunteer how difficult it must be for clients on below-freezing mornings. A middle-aged woman who walked up after trying on pants and tops remarked in response: “That’s right. I almost didn’t want to leave my tent this morning!”
It’s common for rooms to be filled with women looking for children’s clothes. Burch remarked: “Many parents of multiple children come for clothing, as well as grandmothers who sometimes unexpectedly find themselves responsible for their grandchildren. We also have women who bring back still wearable clothes that their children have outgrown.”
Some food bags dispensed on Thursdays twice monthly include items that need cooking, while others contain immediately eatable items since many people living outdoors cannot prepare warm meals. The food is donated by individual church members, and a fund is set up at Amity Methodist Church. The Food Bank also has a valued relationship with the Durham Food Bank, which shares resources with them.
Occasionally, an organization or individual will provide a special treat, like bananas, turkey or chicken, fruit juices for children, or detergent and dishwashing soap. Volunteers ask visitors how many people are in their household so that they can get enough supplies to feed several people if needed. About 30 people come regularly to the bi-weekly food sessions.
Many of us have seen people asking for donations on street corners around town. Some people offer small donations or food items; others look away or say something uncharitable. I’ve decided to give those who approach me a handout with information on where they can access food and shelter (see above).
Burch feels rewarded by her work at the Clothes Closet/Food Bank: “We especially try to be a bit more generous to first timers to our service. I remember one woman in particular who was approaching me in the hall after visiting the room with children’s clothes. She was crying as she carried her bags, and I asked her if something was wrong. She responded: ‘No. I just can’t believe how good and generous you all are.’” A special project the Sigma Tau Sigma Sorority put together was the creation of 42 purses, each filled with toiletries and a string of pearls. Burch now gives these purses to female clients who can use an extra boost.
Burch is further inspired by former clients who have successfully transitioned to a more stable status. She donated some of her own wall hangings and a table to one long-time men’s shelter resident who got his own apartment. She remarked: “It’s nice to see people get a job and get to a place where they can stay on their own. That makes me happy! Most of the people who come to receive food or clothes come because someone told them about us. If you volunteer or frequent places where there are people in need, please direct them to us.”
Maria de Bruyn participates in nature-oriented citizen science projects, volunteers for Mason Farm Biological Reserve, NC Wildlife Federation and the Orange County Senior Center, coordinates a nature-themed book club and posts on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/bruynmariade/) and at https://mybeautifulworldblog.com.