Vancouver charity the Giving Closet helps the very poor

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

THE GIVING CLOSET

What: A charity for extremely low-income people.

Where: 2804 N.E. 65th Ave., Units A and B, Vancouver.

Open: Walk-ins welcome for a first visit and eligibility interview from 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; after that, visits are by appointment only.

First-timers: Bring picture ID and all household members’ Social Security numbers.

Telephone: 360-993-4800.

On the Web: The Giving Closet.

Dinner and auction: March 1. ­Presented by the International Air & Hospitality Academy.

Dinner tickets: $30, with all proceeds going to The Giving Closet.

Midtown Vancouver isn't exactly the slums of Calcutta. But when Denise Currie was on a church mission in India in the late 1990s, her mission leader passed along this message, which came straight from the lips of Mother Teresa: "There is poverty in America, too. You need to stay home and serve the ones in your own backyard."

Currie found the poverty in Calcutta appalling. But poverty in the richest nation in the world started to appall her on a whole different level.

"At first, I had no idea there was so much poverty right here in Vancouver," she said. "The recession has really shined a new light on it."

Today, Currie is the force behind The Giving Closet, a quiet charity operating out of a network of warehouse spaces on Northeast 65th Avenue, south of Fourth Plain.

Everything is free at The Giving Closet, which started in a church attic and has grown to fill two big rooms with the bare necessities of life: clothing and shoes; bread and emergency food; household appliances, books and toys. Teams of volunteers keep the racks and shelves filled as wave after wave of clients come through.

There's also a third cavernous space — an "education annex" offering tutoring, high school equivalency, cooking and nutrition classes. Currie also hopes there'll be yoga classes and other fitness-building, stress-reducing, just-plain-fun activities too — if the right volunteer partners can be found.

"Poverty is very stressful," she said. "These people deserve that sort of relaxation just like anyone else."

"I love it here," said Katie Cole on a January afternoon as she combed the racks for clothes for her three children, who wear "stretchy pants" that don't keep them warm, she said.

She also needed a walker for herself and the fibromyalgia that keeps her in pain. Both Cole and her husband are disabled and haven't been able to work in years, she said; meanwhile, there are three kids to raise.

"It has been difficult," she said.

Patty Carmona said she has "no idea" what her family would do if it wasn't for The Giving Closet. Carmona's husband was laid off by a Washougal lumber company two years ago, she said, and hasn't been able to hold steady work since.

"He's been struggling from one job to another. It's been really hard," she said.

Carmona was thrilled to discover a dollhouse for her 4-year-old daughter.

"If I come home with clothes, she's like, OK, thank you. But she will be very excited about this."

Sustainable

The Giving Closet has given everything away for free for nearly 13 years, Currie said, but it's only been incorporated as a legal nonprofit agency since 2011. It's always run on donations and volunteerism, but now The Giving Closet is working with a professional grant writer and looking for ways to support its steady growth with steady income streams.

"We want to get sustainable," said board member Lori Hausler. "How can we do that?"

"We are heading in the paperwork direction," said Jen Choate, Currie's daughter, who stations the reception desk and checks clients in according to a no-nonsense appointment schedule.

Income limits — making sure the charity's largesse goes to the truly needy — used to be enforced through a smile and a handshake with Currie, who welcomes each client inside, but lately the standards of proof are tighter.

Clients are supposed to be making no more than 30 percent of the area median — what the federal government considers "extremely low" income. Information taken by The Giving Closet goes into the Homeless Management Information System, a database managed by the Council for the Homeless and shared with the federal government. From November 2005 to June 2012, The Giving Closet provided more than 77,000 discrete services to 12,938 different clients.

Those people can visit twice a month for the first year, Currie said, and take home five bags full of stuff for a family, or three bags for an individual. There's free hot food and snacks for people who are truly hungry; there are "household kits" with things like towels and toasters for domestic violence survivors starting up new households but who have literally nothing to put inside them. There's no furniture at The Giving Closet.

"We are hugely blessed by the people and businesses that donate," said Currie. "Everybody here is a volunteer and everything here has been donated."

Currie is the only nonvolunteer; she said The Giving Closet is her sole source of income.

As with many charities, clients often become the most dedicated volunteers and generous donors, she said. All her own used clothes go into the warehouse, of course.

"Every once in a while, I see my own shirt coming in on someone else," said Currie. "It makes me smile."

Help wanted

Currie wants everyone to know that there's a fine-dining fundraiser for The Giving Closet coming up on March 1. For their unit on event management, students at Vancouver's International Air Academy regularly select a local nonprofit and then put on a big dinner for it, with all proceeds going to the nonprofit; this year, they have chosen The Giving Closet. Tickets are $30.

Meanwhile, volunteers are always welcome.

"I can dream 'til the sky is orange, but I can't make all this happen without them," Currie said.

For example, there's the irreplaceable Julie Love, a part-time nurse and volunteer seamstress who takes home frayed donations and repairsthem — patching elbows, replacing zippers — before they hit the shelves.

"It's the stuff you would normally toss," she said. "It's nice to rescue it, and it's nice to meet a lot of nice people."

Giving Hope

What started out as an attic-based way to provide single mothers with physical necessities has evolved, Currie said, into a multipronged attack on intergenerational poverty, with education as the key.

"I'm really after the kids," she said. "I'm hoping that education will be the biggest piece."

The third room in The Giving Closet's suite is nicknamed Giving Hope, and it's a little like a future high school library: tidy and businesslike, with desks and tables, couches and chairs, a handful of computers — and plenty of room for more. There have been some halting steps to begin offering after-school tutoring, adult literacy and high school equivalency classes here. Currie wants to see the room bustling with educational activities all the time.

"Poverty is like a box," she said. "People born into poverty think it's a concrete box. You think it's where you belong, and there's no way out. You think you deserve it. You have no self-esteem.

"But it turns out to be a cardboard box," she concluded. "All you have to do is lift the lid, and you're out."