Clothes Closet is all about community

02.12.2015 Michelle Alaimo People

By Ron Karten

Smoke Signals staff writer

For 10 years, the Grand Ronde Community Clothes Closet has drawn dedicated volunteers to keep it going.

Many of the volunteers first needed the clothes, blankets and small appliances kept in the old red house coming from the Elders Activity Center down the dirt road leading to the rodeo grounds.

Tribal spouse Kathy Soderberg, along with Anna White and Dee West, got the ball rolling a decade ago. Current Finance Officer Chris Leno and Mike Larsen, who walked on in 2013, helped with initial needs and support.

“The whole thing was really rewarding,” says Soderberg. “People are so thankful to go there and find what they need. I don’t know what the community would do without it.”

“We’re glad to be here and help out the community,” says Lori Walker-Hernandez, who has pitched in as a volunteer for eight years. “Community is what it is about: everybody helping everybody.”

 Currently, the Clothes Closet is open two days a week – Monday and Friday, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Walker-Hernandez has Fridays and Daniele Powley, a volunteer since last September, has Mondays. For a long time, the Clothes Closet was open only one day a week.

 “It’s a nice place to work,” says Walker-Hernandez. “It is not like you’re stressed. If you’re sick, you trade days."

Volunteers keep up with what the community needs, and not just in clothes.

Powley was “kind of shy,” she says, the first time she needed clothes for her family. She did not know how the closet worked or what to expect, and if people would be looking at her.

Now, she says, “It’s fulfilling to meet people, do something for the community, and make people feel welcome. It’s nice to meet people and socialize.”

The Clothes Closet building is all cedar and the wood was cut by hand. So said the builder last summer to Walker-Hernandez when he came back to see if the old place was still standing.

He had a saw mill a little north on the property and built the house to live closer to work.

After he lived there, others have called the building home. In the early 1990s, the Tribal Head Start program used the building. For a time, rooms were rented out.

“A lot of people come down and say, ‘I used to go to school here,’ or ‘I used to live here,’ ” says Walker-Hernandez.

Powley’s first experience came last year, before she started volunteering with the Clothes Closet. Her son, Benjamin, now 9, did not have shoes for school. “His school shoes wore out,” she says. The family was going to get him shoes with her husband’s latest paycheck. They were living paycheck to paycheck in those days.

Then, his paycheck was stolen, Powley says. “Things happen.” She visited the Clothes Closet and found a pair. “I couldn’t believe that there was a pair that was perfect. People seem to find what they need there.”

For many years, Matt Bucknell, Elementary Lead for the Tribe’s Education Department, has spearheaded Socktoberfest, a program soliciting socks for the Clothes Closet. The community contributes hundreds of pairs every year.

This year, the Social Services Department collected jackets and coats for the Clothes Closet. They donated 160 this year.

“We’re like family,” says Walker-Hernandez. “The community really helps with donations. If a family is in need, the word goes out pretty quickly. People will call and give blankets. If we don’t see somebody for a while, we’ll ask about them.

”The Clothes Closet has a bulletin board where community members can advertise to get rid of or find this or that. “It’s not just for Tribal members,” says Powley. “It’s for the whole community.”

The Clothes Closet serves about 25 to 30 people each Monday and Friday. The number has been growing every year, even if just by a couple of people in need.

Donations are currently down a little, but the clothes on hand and the need for clothes also vary from week to week.

Men’s clothes are usually pretty scarce. “We’re always in need of men’s clothes,” says Walker-Hernandez.

When it comes to recycling, the Clothes Closet does its share. “We’re always recycling,” says Powley. Her daughter, Reanna, 6, will say, “Mommy, this doesn’t fit, let’s give it to some other girl.”

“We go through our stuff, our old coats, and bring them back,” Powley says.

Volunteers see it all – again and again. “We’ll say, ‘Hey, I’ve seen that outfit three or four times.’ ”

The Clothes Closet works with about five other similar agencies in the area. “One will call and say, ‘We have an overabundance of blankets. Do you need them?’ And we’ll do the same,” says Walker-Hernandez.

“I love doing it,” Walker-Hernandez adds. “If I got paid, I wouldn’t like it as well as I do. It’s not about the money. At some time, we’ve all needed help. What better way to give back than to help somebody else if you can?”

For questions, to donate or ask about clothes for the family, contact Walker-Hernandez at 559-847-7565 or Powley at 971-241-6170.