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The Thinking Belle: Why I’m Cleaning Out My Closets for Shelters

I was fourteen years old the first time my mother kicked me out of the house. We lived in a rural farming town of about 500 people. It was an isolated residence; homes in that town are spread out from one another, tucked between cornfields and wooded areas. There was a school and a general store, but both of those had closed down earlier in my childhood. I was young; I didn’t have a cell phone or a driver’s license.

It was night time and chilly, but I was too worried about where I was going to go to care. I stuffed my hands in the pocket of my jacket and started down our long, winding gravel driveway. I knew I had nowhere to go and no way to contact anyone. The fight with my mother had happened so suddenly that I did not think to pack a bag. I had no clothes, no toiletry items, nothing.

After about a mile of walking down the road alone that night, I came upon a church. Every door to the church was locked, so I found what looked to be the spot most hidden from moonlight, and curled up to go to sleep.

I do not feel ashamed to say I have survived these things. People are always surprised to learn what I have experienced, as if there are only certain kinds of people who suffer and the rest of us are immune.  Trauma can affect anyone.

I did not know then, but, like many survivors of child abuse, I would re-experience trauma as an adult. That first time I was told to leave home, one of my older siblings eventually found me sleeping behind the church. The next day, I moved in with my father. I was very fortunate. There are so many young people escaping situations who do not have fathers like mine.  Over the next few years, I survived a few more instances with my mother that sent me walking out of the house with nowhere to go and no resources to survive. But that fear—where am I going to sleep tonight?—followed me into adulthood.

I lived with a man who abused me financially, physically, sexually, and psychologically for three years during my early twenties. Years later, I started a self-titled blog about dealing with the aftermath of this abuse.  In my blog entry, “How I Left My Abuser, Pt. 1 of 2,” I described a night where I fled my own home and had to hide in the bushes from my boyfriend. My keys and cell phone were trapped inside the house, and I knew he would kill me if I went in to get them. In the follow-up entry, “How I Left My Abuser, Pt. 2 of 2,” I discuss how the following night, I had to sleep on a friend’s couch to hide from him. During both of those incidents, and a few others that I endured during that relationship, I left suddenly, panicked, and in danger—always without a change of clothes, a toothbrush, and other necessary items.

Now my life is very different. I have survived two physically abusive relationships and fought hard to recover and rebuild myself mentally, financially, and in the pursuit of my goals. Now, I have accumulated an abundance of belongings. I have too many clothes, handbags, and shoes for my own closet to hold, and I’ve got a collection of odds and ends that I never use.

So I have been thinking about myself at fourteen, myself at twenty-three, and what would have happened to me if I didn’t have a father like mine, or if what would have happened if I did not have friends who knew what was happening to me and cared enough to intervene. For both children and adults, being suddenly out of home with no clothes and personal items is an unfortunate reality—and for many of those individuals, that situation does not improve in a day or two, as it always did for me.

When I wrote “Meet The Working Poor” for Midlands Anchor, I interviewed a single mother with a special needs child who lost everything she had during the October 2015 flood in South Carolina. And when I wrote “16 and Homeless,” also for Midlands Anchor, I interviewed two young women who left their families to live in a shelter while they were still in high school. I remember that first time my mother kicked me out of the house, how I left in quiet tears with no possessions and laid down to sleep behind a church a mile away—and I think about the young women and men in these articles, and those who have to struggle daily to find a place to sleep and shower, or clothes to wear, or food to eat. And now I look around at all the excess in my life. I do not wear over half the clothes in my closet. I have shoes that haven’t been touched in two years. It is just too much stuff, not being put to good use.

Think about this with me. There are so many things in your house that you never touch, look at, or use at all. But those items could make a huge difference in someone else’s life. A blank journal, for example, that someone gave you as a gift, that you never used, could become the diary where a child copes with homelessness, abuse, or family problems, or something a rape crisis counselor gives to a survivor to help her begin to heal. That dress you can’t fit into anymore may be what someone else wears to a job interview or a school dance. I have been the struggling woman without a roof over her head more times than I would like to admit. But I always got out that with help from other people; first, my father, and later in adulthood, my friends.

So I have decided to purge my home and donate as much as I can to the shelters who provide services and care for children, women, and men in need, those who may not have had the resources I have always been so lucky to have. On Sunday, July 16, I am inviting my friends over to my house to participate in a clothing swap party—but all of the extra clothes are going to local shelters. I’m also asking party guests to bring other items to send with the clothes, including toiletries, school supplies, and household items.

We will split the donation collections up between the battered women’s shelter where I am doing my dissertation research, SistercarePalmetto Place Shelter, the home for unaccompanied youths and foster children that inspired “16 and Homeless;” The Women’s ShelterSt. Lawrence Place, which was the nonprofit “Meet The Working Poor” featured; Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands; and a transitional house for women and children, Hannah House.

For some of my friends, this may just be a way to socialize on a summer Sunday, but for others, this will be a way that we can give back without having to spend money or give up a lot of time.

When I initially invited my friends to do this with me, I pointed out the benefits: “This will be great for those of you whose bodies have changed due to weight loss, weight gain, and pregnancy—you can throw out stuff you will never use and bring home a new wardrobe. It’s also great for anyone who is moving and needs to downsize.” But for me personally? I am most excited about what happens after the clothing swap has ended.  I cannot wait to start dividing everything up into boxes and bins to take to different shelters who help children and adults. I may be more fortunate now, but I will never forget that 14-year-old version of myself who slept on cold, damp grass behind a church, or the 23-year-old me who hid all night in the bushes from her violent boyfriend.

I have never done this in my blog or in my writing for Midlands Anchor before, but I would like to ask for you—the readers—to help as my July 16 donation drive party approaches. Think about all of the dust-collecting, old, forgotten items in your home that could be of great use to other individuals and families. Please join me this week in purging your home to give back to others in need.

This is a list of items needed by the local shelters we will be helping next weekend.

  • Art and craft supplies (Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, St. Lawrence Place)
  • Baby items (Sistercare)
  • Books and magazines (Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter, Sistercare)
  • Cleaning supplies (Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter, Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, Sistercare, St. Lawrence Place, The Women’s Shelter)
  • Furniture (Hannah House, St. Lawrence Place)
  • Gardening items (Sistercare, St. Lawrence Place)
  • Gift cards (Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter, Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, Sistercare, St. Lawrence Place, The Women’s Shelter)
  • Journals (Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, Sistercare)
  • Kitchen items (Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter, Sistercare, St. Lawrence Place)
  • Lamps (St. Lawrence Place)
  • Linens (Hannah House, Sistercare, St. Lawrence Place)
  • Miscellaneous household items (Sistercare, St. Lawrence Place)
  • Office and school supplies (Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter, Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, Sistercare)
  • Personal/hygiene products (Hannah House, Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter, Sistercare, St. Lawrence Place)
  • Pillows (Sistercare, St. Lawrence Place)
  • Snacks (Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter, Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, Sistercare, St. Lawrence Place, The Women’s Shelter)
  • Sporting goods (Sistercare)
  • Toys (Hannah House, Sistercare, St. Lawrence Place)
  • Specific Clothing Requests
    • Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter— job interview outfits, new with tags underwear and socks
    • Sexual Trauma Services—must be new with tags; they need packs of underwear, sports bras, yoga or sweat pants with elastic waist bands, short sleeve plain shirts, and flip flops.
    • The Women’s Shelter—gently used or new black pants, tennis shoes, black no-show socks

This column also appears in Allison Willingham’s self-titled blog, allisonwillingham.wordpress.com. 

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