Material issue

IT WAS A COLD, WINTER DAY when one of Mary Lou Aiello's most memorable clients walked into the Care Center, five months pregnant and with only a thin winter coat to shield her from the rapidly amassing snow.

"Her fingers were blue from the cold," says Aiello, the Care Center's executive director. "I was trying to warm them up when she told me that she was wearing the only coat in the family. Her husband had gone to work in that kind of weather without one so she could come to the center.

"They were a delightful couple, and he was working hard; they were doing the best they could. I still get goosebumps when I think of the look on her face when I gave her a maternity coat to wear. She looked so happy," Aiello recalls.

The coat Aiello handed out that day was only one of the nearly 200 articles of clothing she gives out every year and one of the thousands of services the Care Center has provided to area women in its nearly 19 years of operation. Located in Springfield, Illinois, the Care Center is committed to providing women with a full range of prenatal services. Over 5,000 women have used the center for free and confidential pregnancy testing, family counseling, physician referrals, nutrition counseling, childbirth coaching, and parenting classes.

By offering such services to their clients, the Care Center has earned a success rate any organization would envy: last year alone, 369 healthy babies were born to clients of the center.

Basic attire
With all the services they offer, though, Aiello is quick to point out that sometimes the things the women need most are also the most basic—like warm maternity coats to ward off icy Midwestern winters. "We realized very early on that the best alternative to an abortion is hands-on help. You have to help them every step of the way," Aiello says.

That includes providing mothers with maternity clothes, children from birth to age 4 with clothes, shoes, and toys, and every newborn with a brand-new layette. Donations pour in from all over Springfield where local schools and churches collect items from clothing drives billed as "baby showers for baby Jesus" as well as from public and private grants. When local hospitals cannot discharge a new mother because she or her newborn need clothes to wear home, they know they can rely on the Care Center; when families run out of diapers and the money to purchase new ones, they know they can count on what Aiello calls the center's "emergency stash."

And at the recommendation of their clients, the center also sponsors a laundry program. In exchange for their participation in the Care Center's programs, the women receive coupons for up to four free wash-loads at the Lucky Lady Laundromat.

"What if you got up each morning and put on the same soiled clothes? What would that do for your self-esteem? These women didn't want to raise their children that way, but they needed the services," Aiello says. "The best part about the program is what happens while the women wait for their laundry. They start to visit with each other and make friends. Making friends makes them more social, and being more social makes them better moms. And the better moms we have, the better those kids are going to be."

Many of these moms go on to become role models and mentors for the center's next clients. "We're here to help them, and then they come back to help us," Aiello says. "We reach out to do what Christ wants us to. They reach out to other people just as they have been helped."

Aiello's attitude toward helping the women who come to her for assistance may seem unusual, especially considering today's prevalent public-aid bashing and slashing. But many of the ideas behind the mission statement of the Care Center and hundreds of other social-service organizations just like it can be traced back throughout the history of the Catholic Church.

The church's first comprehensive document on social justice, Pope Leo XIII's Rerum novarum ("The Condition of Labor"), was written in 1891. It urged that "whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of blessings . . . has received them for the perfecting of his own nature, and at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God's providence, for the benefit of others."

Dressed for success

Aided by Kathy Miller of the Bottomless Closet, one client recently benefited from the organization's mission to provide a professional look for women on welfare seeking jobs.

She came in one day for her appointment, wearing sweatpants, a sweatshirt, and a terry-cloth head band," Miller recalls, "and she seemed so apprehensive. We chatted for a little bit, and then we began to look around the store. I really wanted her to feel comfortable."

The first time her client warily made her way out of the dressing room, Miller could plainly see the gray sweatpants poking out from underneath the knee-length skirt and the sweatshirt bulging underneath the blouse and blazer. As she watched her client self-consciously examine herself in the full-length mirror, Miller said nothing.

"She was obviously still not comfortable, but I didn't want to push her," Miller says. "The next time she came out, she had taken off her sweatshirt. After that, she tried on another outfit and took off her sweatpants. Finally, she came out in this glorious red suit. It looked absolutely stunning on her."

Miller remembers the air of confidence her client assumed as she finally strutted out of the dressing room, pleased with her new look. As her client took one look at herself in the mirror, she smiled approvingly and whipped off the terry-cloth headband—the last remnant of her street clothing.

Shaking out her hair, Miller's client—who until then had only spoken in a barely audible whisper—loudly proclaimed, "I'm interviewing with the vice president of the company. What he doesn't know is that one day I'm going to have his job."

"I didn't even recognize her from the woman who had walked in my door only an hour before; it was such a complete transformation," Miller says.

Look in the closet 
Such words are perfect inspiration for those who volunteer their time or material resources to the Care Center. They are equally motivational for the volunteers behind Chicago's Bottomless Closet. With sites in both downtown Chicago and suburban Waukegan, Illinois, the Bottomless Closet helps women on welfare get jobs by providing them with the final touch—the professional look.

Women enrolled in job-training programs throughout the city come to the Bottomless Closet before they go to a job interview. With the help of volunteer consultants—the equivalent of a personal shopper at much pricier Bloomingdale's—the women work their way through what by all other accounts appears to be a typical department store. But the professional clothing hanging on the racks—suits, skirts, blazers, tailored pants and blouses—do not bear the same price tag as their Michigan Avenue counterparts; instead, they have been donated. And as the clients weave their way through the full-length mirrors, display cases, and shoe racks, the volunteers, professional women themselves, advise them on how to behave in a corporate environment.

Once hired, a woman can return to the Bottomless Closet and pick out a week's worth of work clothes.

The whole idea began in 1990 with Laurel Baer, the founder of the group, which has since served as a model for several other organizations across the country. Baer was listening to a radio program one day that featured a group of women who were struggling to get jobs and get off welfare. The women all had the same complaint: if they went to an interview looking unprofessional, no one would hire them, no matter what their skills or qualifications. Without the money to invest in a corporate wardrobe, these women seemed backed into a no-win situation.

"It's a pretty simple idea, but it's one that everyone understands," says Kathy Miller, the Bottomless Closet's executive director. "Other professional women know that a woman can't get a job if she doesn't look right."

The simplicity behind the concept of the Bottomless Closet helps to explain its success. The not-for-profit organization has helped 4,500 women over the last six years and now has, according to Miller, "more clothes than they could ever use." Donations, especially of larger-size clothes, are always welcome, though, on the second Saturday of every month. All clothing must be in excellent condition and donated on hangers.

"We do not keep anything our own volunteers would not wear," Miller says. "Businesswomen know what it takes, and they know that donating a suit they wore in 1982 is not going to do it."

Miller is also quick to point out that the Bottomless Closet has been so successful because it has remained narrow in its focus. While it works to provide clothes, it also cooperates with other organizations throughout the city to help its clients with other challenges they may be facing—history of drug abuse, previous incarceration, or physical abuse.

"A problem that faces many not-for-profit groups today is that for all of their caring and well-meaning staff, they still try to do too much. They get caught up in how much needs to be done, and they try to do everything for everyone. That's a recipe for burnout," says Miller. "When a client is referred to us, we know that she has a marketable skill. They are at a transition point when a suit or a wardrobe can make a difference. We are careful to focus our efforts to be most effective."

Cloaked in respect
Treating their clients with dignity and respect has always been a top priority for the volunteers at Bottomless Closet. The clothes they provide their clients may produce an exterior transformation, but they realize that no professional look can win a woman a job if she doesn't really believe that she has the power to change her life.

Clothes helped make
the woman

Clothing the naked takes on a different meaning for Sharon Almon, a case manager at the Family Self-Sufficiency program in Lake County, Illinois, a service under the auspices of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. With the help of organizations like the Bottomless Closet, the program helps clients gain skills, earn degrees, and get jobs.

"These women need a lot of things: some self-esteem, some skills, and some clothing so they can look the corporate part," Almon says. "The challenges these women face—being single parents, going to school, and working part-time without the conveniences like food, money, and transportation—are amazing. What some of them end up achieving is even more amazing."

Here's the story of a recent graduate:

My name is Cheri Cox and I am a 1997 graduate of Barat College where I majored in both business administration and accounting. I graduated cum laude, was invited to join the Delta Epsilon Sigma national honor society, and was nominated for the National Dean's List. Most important, I am the mother of two exceptional children: Courtney, age 9, and Cordell, age 7.

When I entered the Self-Sufficiency program, several circumstances had brought me to a point in my life in which I really needed their help. I was young, an unwed mother, undereducated, living in public housing, and receiving general assistance. I was the type of person you hear about on the evening news—a statistic.

My children and I were living well below the poverty line, and providing them with even the daily necessities was sometimes a problem. But I kept hearing a voice that told me that I could not be content with the place I was in, that I had to progress, further my education, and make a better life for my children.

"So, in 1990, I enrolled in the College of Lake County to earn my associate's degree. It took a great deal of determination to stay on task semester after semester when the trials of real life were weighing me down. There were many occasions when I just wanted to cry: the child care would fall through, the kids would get sick, the car would break down. It was a lot to handle, and it took me five years to receive a two-year degree.

When I enrolled in Barat in 1995, I was a totally different young lady than a few years before. I was more confident and determined; every little obstacle no longer reduced me to tears. I was learning, with the help of so many, to be self-sufficient. It has taken a great deal of work and several thousand prayers to be able to stand before you today. I am very proud of this accomplishment, but even more grateful to all those that assisted me in getting here.

I would like to thank the Self-Sufficiency staff . . . especially Sharon Almon. She has helped me in more ways than she will ever know, not only with school supplies, holiday baskets, transportation, and professional resources, but also with a listening ear and a warm smile. Your Christian heart definitely shines through. Thank you.

Treating people with this type of respect has long been a tenet in the church, which worried early on that human dignity could not be cultivated or developed if a person were not given the power to participate in the processes—either political or economic—that would determine their future. In their own small way, the people behind the Bottomless Closet are living out the words of many church leaders.

Pope Paul VI, in his 1961 encyclical Populorum progressio ("On the Development of Peoples"), argued that the notion of human dignity can be protected only by realizing each person's potential for knowledge, responsibility, and freedom in every area of his or her life.

The 1971 document of the Synod of Bishops, "Justice in the World," moved this argument along by calling attention to the process of marginalization, which denies human beings the power to shape their own destiny in all facets of life. By designing their stores to look like real department stores, allowing clients to pick out their own clothes, and respecting their opinions, the volunteers help their clients feel in control.

"They can say, 'No, I don't like this,' or 'I don't think this color looks right on me,' and we listen to them," Miller says. "Their opinion is respected and there is a complete attitude change. Heads go up; shoulders go back. I see smiles. We really help our clients feel in charge of their lives."

On a larger scale
 After working for 17 years for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Marge Walsh has seen her fair share of transformed lives. As the organization's operations director, Walsh spends the year knee-deep in donations from generous Chicago area parishes.

A volunteer lay organization, the St. Vincent de Paul Society boasts 950,000 members in 113 countries. In the Chicago archdiocese alone, the organization operates four family thrift shops, organizes five different drives annually, and sponsors "bundle Sundays" where people can drop off their donations at some 75 drop-off sites across the city. They pick up clothing donations from homes, university dorms, and high-rise apartment complexes.

Last year alone, the society gave out over 100,000 vouchers to individuals, families, and residential facilities. This totaled over $300,000 in giveaway items at thrift-store prices.

With 164 years of experience behind it, the St. Vincent de Paul Society has perfected a system of giving that works well on a large scale. And parish representatives assess families' needs by conducting on-site visits in their homes.

Using vouchers, those individuals can go to any of the stores and select what they need—clothes, coats, linens, blankets, shoes, toys, back-to-school supplies, or furniture.

"A lot of times people are just handed a box, and they say, 'Here are your clothes.' The way we do it gives them some sense of ownership," Walsh says. "They take what they want."

It also makes the process of asking for help easier on those that need it.

"By the time people come to us, they are usually at the end of their rope because they want to think they can handle it," Walsh says. "The public has a misconception that there are people out there who just want a handout. That is hardly ever the case."

Walsh rarely has had "regular customers" in her years with the society and attributes this to the social workers provided by Catholic Charities that work with individuals on whatever problems they might have with getting back on their feet. But the demand for the society's services have increased in the last year, something Walsh attributes to the recently enacted welfare reform. Still, so long as the poor are with us, Walsh and her team of volunteers are willing to help as many people as possible. 

Georgia Alexakis is a former intern for U.S. Catholic and a student at Harvard University.

All active news articles