Women supporting women is vital, ingrained in us and fundamental to improving the world for our daughters. I believe it is even more important to support women who are traveling through dark times. Supporting safe houses and shelters is one way to show support and solidarity with each other.
As the director of a homeless shelter for families and victims of domestic violence, I have seen some crazy things donated to us over the years: books on medieval weapons, half eaten boxes of cereal that expired four years earlier, sex toys… And while we appreciate the support of the community, here are six guidelines on how to really help shelters and get the most out of your donation:
1. People in shelter are not naked. Please go through the clothes you donate and throw away those that are ripped and stained. Our families do need clothes – but they are regular people like you and I, and don’t want to wear torn, grossly out-dated clothes. Shelters also typically do not have the bandwidth to wash donated clothes – so please only donate items that are clean.
2. Christmas Time is not the only time to donate. Most shelters are inundated with clothes and toys during December. I worked in one large women’s shelter that needed to rent a storage container each winter to handle the over flowing donations. Many families receive so many toys during the holiday that they tell us that, later, they feel guilty for not being able to provide the same largess in subsequent Christmases for their children. Similarly, we need school supplies for students all year round – not just in August. Please consider donating ‘off-season.’
3. Donate personal items that you may take for granted. There are lots of small toiletry items that most of us use each week that make our lives bearable: tweezers, sewing kits, hair ties, toe nail clippers, the right size tampons and make-up. These are always in short supply at shelters – and women everywhere appreciate them!
4. Call ahead and see if the shelter you want to give your stuff needs it. We always appreciate thoughtful donors who call ahead to make sure we can use what they have to offer. Most shelters do not have the space to warehouse bags and bags of clothing or furniture. For example, we often need high chairs, but sometimes we just don’t. Many programs also have a wish list that they post that will help you decided what they need.
5. Connect with the Shelter. What programs really need are people who take the time to connect with their program. We love supporters who come in for a tour, cook us a meal, volunteer by providing child care during groups. Get to know families staying in shelters and you will have a better understanding of how you can help. Little things like bringing lilacs from your garden go a long way in helping families feel welcome in shelter. Please become a part of our community – you will walk away with so much more than a cleaned out closet!
Wendy Oldenbrook is the mother of three and director of a small homeless shelter for single women with children in Colorado. With a background in social work, she channels extra energy into writing, social media and advocacy. Follow her on twitter @woldenbrook.