A person in crisis may need housing, a job or legal assistance. But before anything, that person needs something much simpler.
“Many of us will never find ourselves in a situation where we don’t have the basic necessities,” such as a bar of soap, a shower, underwear or socks, says Rob Oakleaf, executive director of the downtown Kalamazoo nonprofit Ministry with Community. “Yet most of us count on those necessities to feel human.”
That’s why Ministry with Community hosts an annual Underwear Open House -— to gather such necessities and present them as Christmas gifts to the people Ministry serves. This year’s event — the 14th annual Underwear Open House, which is open to the public — is set for 5 to 8 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Lawrence Education Center, on the Borgess Medical Center campus.
Attendees are asked to bring donations of new, unwrapped underwear, socks, thermal underwear, T-shirts, sweatshirts, flannel shirts, hats, gloves and scarves — in adult sizes only, including extra large. Up the Creek Jazz Band will perform at the event, which will include raffles, hors d’oeuvres and beverages. Donations are accepted at Ministry with Community before and after the event as well.
Last year, Oakleaf says, the Underwear Open House collected more than 2,000 pounds of clothing, which provided more than 1,000 gifts — a figure that Oakleaf recognizes is impressive.
“Every year we depend on the public to have enough clothing to give to every person in need on Christmas Day, and every year we get it,” he says. “We’re very lucky.”
For Kalamazoo area residents who find themselves in emergency situations with no food, home or resources, Ministry with Community offers a safe haven. Those who use Ministry services are considered “members.”
“We view ourselves as being the place you go when you’re experiencing a life emergency, like you’re going to starve,” says Laurie Terlesky, development director. “We’re going to help you with your emergency needs right when you come in, that same day.”
The Ministry with Community members’ center offers everything a person would need if he or she were homeless: hot showers, toiletries, lockers, phones, a Loaves and Fishes food pantry, a fax machine, mailing service and connections to other services in Kalamazoo.
“I think sometimes people think of us as solely a soup kitchen,” Terlesky says. “While we do serve lunch and dinner to our members, we also offer a lot more than just that.”
The services are free to anyone who needs them, and Ministry with Community prides itself on follow-through — the staff works to connect members with organizations that can help put them back on their feet.
Ministry with Community boasts impressive annual help statistics. It served more than 103,000 meals, allowed more than 10,000 showers and 10,000 loads of laundry, and provided 373 haircuts, 674 birth certificates or IDs and 103,000 personal-care items in 2012 alone. Ministry with Community also helps members with bus tokens, van rides to jobs and interviews, basic life-skill instruction and daily activities.
At the Ministry center, members bustle to and from rooms, doing laundry, making phone calls, eating a much-needed nutritional meal and asking volunteers to help with mailing services.
Terlesky points out that for many of the members, their initial visit will be the first time they’ll feel clean, connect with loved ones, sit down in comfort or feel safe. For those who work at the ministry, she says, that’s what it’s all about.
Ministry with Community employs 21 full-time workers, and its volunteers fill the equivalent of 14 full-time positions. Oakleaf and Terlesky say Ministry with Community couldn’t do everything it does without the help of volunteers, including volunteers from other organizations in the community, as will be the case with the upcoming Underwear Open House.
After donations are collected, the community volunteer group Santa’s Helpers wraps all the clothing to be opened at the Ministry on Christmas morning. Oakleaf explains that this tradition, started by four women looking for a way to give back during the holidays, provides an invaluable feeling of being cared for to the members.
“We try to provide that for our members,” he says. “We want them to have a sense of self-worth and self-sufficiency. It’s not easy to feel human without it.”