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Derry clothing distribution service a place that wears well, even years later

Special to the Union Leader

September 13. 2017 11:55PM

Volunteer Eleanor Foster processes donated clothing at Renew, a free clothing service of Calvary Bible Church in Derry. (KATHLEEN D. BAILEY PHOTO)

DERRY — Jennifer Ryan of Manchester shifted the load of garments she’d found at the monthly Renew clothing distribution at Calvary Bible Church. She held up a pair of sparkling silver high heels. “These are for my daughter’s homeschool formal,” she said.

“They are awesome shoes,” daughter Catherine, “almost 16,” said as she browsed a rack of casual shirts.

While not every client has a Cinderella moment like the Ryans, community clothing needs are met every Thursday morning and once a month on Saturdays, when the doors open at the Renew free clothing distribution. The directors and volunteers have heeded Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 25:35, to clothe the naked, and they’re doing it with style.

Susan Hancock, one of the co-directors, said the service initially began among church members who had growing children. The ministry started in a closet, and as children grew and parents exchanged more garments, the service took over a small frame building on the Calvary campus. Donations grew along with the children, Hancock said, and the service acquired a name, Renew, and was opened to the public one Saturday a month.

This summer they added a Thursday morning session, for those who can’t make the Saturday one, and it’s going well, Hancock said, noting, “We average 20 people from 9 to 11:30 a.m.” They average 60 to 80 customers on the second Saturday of the month, and have served “hundreds and hundreds” of customers over seven years.

“Some people come once a year, some come every time we’re open,” Hancock said.

They never lack for donations, she said, pointing to a tower of plastic bags set against a wall. “Those just came in, and we still have to go through them,” she said. Community members hear about the service and donate outgrown or unneeded clothing, she said. Church members continue to give items they don’t need, and the families who take clothes bring back outgrown garments.

What about the quality? Hancock chuckled. “That,” she said, “is getting better and better. We just opened a bag of plus-size women’s clothing, and it’s just beautiful.”

Renew receives a lot of name-brand items, some still with the tags on, and that’s good for kids, Hancock said. “They want to keep up with their friends.”

There are some ground rules, Hancock added. The items are color-coded, and clients may take home 30 items with the “new” tags and 40 with the “old” tags. The limit on shoes is four pairs per visit and on winter coats and boots, two pair per visit. That’s to make sure the supply lasts, she said.

Their demographic is all ages, all walks of life, and all local zip codes, Hancock added. Some people drive an hour to find clothing.

Susan Stillwell, one of the trio of directors, said she got involved three years ago because, “I love clothing! It looked like an interesting ministry, and I’d never heard of anything like it.”

She, Hancock and Candace Robbins now meet several times a week to sort donated items and supervise the other volunteers.

Though the service never departs from its original goal of providing free clothing, it expands and contracts according to need, Stillwell said. “One woman came to us in an emergency,” she recalled. “Her basement apartment flooded, and it was full of raw sewage.” The woman and her children needed complete new wardrobes, but they got more, according to Stillwell: the Renew staff used their connections to obtain beds and other necessary items for the family.

“That’s really what we’re working for,” Stillwell said. “Helping the people who really need us.”

Stillwell echoed Hancock’s observation that donations include name and even designer brands in top shape. “Some of these,” she said, “are items we wouldn’t be able to afford. They are top-line brands. And we only put out the best of the best.”

Garments that don’t quite make the cut are given to other organizations, Hancock contributed. They also take a global view and in the transition from summer to fall merchandise, pulled out “quite a few” garments to be shipped to hurricane victims.

Filling the racks

Hancock and Stillwell chatted up the customers in between replenishing the racks and picking up dropped items. The items they need vary according to the season, and sometimes they just vary. “Last year we were short on size 5 for little girls,” Stillwell said. “This year, all of a sudden, we’re inundated.”

But some things remain constant, Hancock said. There’s an ongoing need for plus-sized clothing. There’s a constant need for maternity wear. And this time of the year they can always use winter coats and boots. Like Bennett, they can also use “everyday stuff,” in this case — pant hangers.

There’s one constant, longtime volunteer Eleanor Foster said. ”We never put out anything we wouldn’t put on a family member — or on ourselves.”

Those wanting to donate may drop items in the bin at the side of their building, Hancock said. It is emptied three or four times a week. They can also drop off clothes during distribution times.

Renew is located on the campus of Calvary Bible Church, Hampstead Road, and is open Thursdays from 9 to 11 a.m. The next Saturday distribution is Oct. 14 from 8 to 10:30 a.m. For more information, visit the ministry’s Facebook page.

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