When The Giving Closet opens at 10:30 a.m., a line of adults and children stream in. The kids bolt for the toy section. The parents head for the racks filled with clothes.
It’s a scene familiar to those who remember busy malls during back-to-school times, although one thing is different here: Everything is free.
But the bustling store, filled with the sounds of music, squealing children and squeaking hangers, may fall silent in five months. The Giving Closet lost three major financial donors in the last few months — a $230,000 loss for the store. It’s a sizeable chunk of its budget, which was $250,000 last year, said Denise Currie, the store’s founder.
“When I first realized the numbers, I cried a lot,” she said. “I’ve never had money trouble in 23 years.”
Currie founded the store at 2804 B N.E. 65th Ave. in Vancouver 23 years ago, after doing charity work for Mother Teresa in Kulkata, India.
“When I was over there, she said to our group, ‘you guys keep coming over here. We have plenty of help.’ She said: ‘Go home and do it in your own backyard.’ ”
So, she did. The Giving Closet often serves over a hundred people a day. It is a place where families can get small things they cannot afford — including shoes, clothes and toys — for free twice a month. All they have to do is make an appointment and show proof that they’re low income.
The store also gives out food and provides “Welcome Home Bundles” full of basic kitchen appliances to people moving into new homes — specifically those transitioning out of homelessness, survivors of domestic violence and people aging out of foster care.
Currie’s eyes fill with tears when she talks about the possibility of closing The Giving Closet. She’s been in the situation of some of the mothers surrounding her. During a downturn in the economy, she, her husband and their three children lived in her friend’s garage.
“I get it,” she said. “I would have loved to have something like this for my family.”
Leticia Amezcua was combing through the women’s section of clothing when Currie walked up and greeted her. A mother of five, Amezcua has been coming to The Giving Closet for around 15 years.
“I have a lot of kids, and we are low income,” she said. “Everything that we get is in good shape, and we need it for our family.”
When told the store might close in five months, her eyes widened. The store is especially helpful for her now. Prices in stores are rising, and her children need to shop for back-to-school supplies.
“We don’t go to stores anymore for clothes, to be honest with you. This is our primary — even what I’m wearing today, it’s from here,” she said, gesturing to her outfit.
Currie said the free items can make a big difference in someone’s life. She’s frequently supplied people with outfits for job interviews.
She remembers helping a man who came in with his family and needed a pair of steel-toed boots in order to get a job he had applied for. They had some in stock, and he got the job, Currie said with a smile.
The free toys and books are important for children’s development, Currie said. When a family is struggling financially, they’re focusing on affording food and housing, she said.
Currie recalls a 10-year-old boy who brought a toy up to the counter and asked how much it was.
“I said: ‘This is all free,’ and his eyes just went — ‘Free?’ ” Currie said, widening her eyes in imitation.
The boy ran back to the toys, but turned around and said, “thank you so much,” Currie said.
“It was so sweet. You see, that’s the kind of stuff that keeps me going, because he’ll remember that,” she said.
Although the store’s financial hardship lingers in the back of her mind, Currie said the store will continue to provide resources to the community and keep its doors open as long as it can.
On Tuesday, the store will host a Back-to-School Bash for people who pre-registered. Kids can get new backpacks, school supplies, haircuts, toys, lunch and balloon animals. The event will have wraparound services, including open job interviews for Starbucks, dental cleanings by Vancouver Dental Office and information on behavioral health resources from nonprofits.
Currie hopes the event will help spread the word about the work The Giving Closet does and make people aware of its financial struggles.
“They need to see that giving is healing, and our community needs that,” Currie said.
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.