San Jose non-profit is reopening a wardrobe for the needy

Written by Kristin Peso, San Jose Spotlight

December 18 2021

The Sacred Heart Community Service’s wardrobe quietly reopened Monday after 19 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The program provides registered members with free clothing that they can receive twice per month from the nonprofit organization located at 1381 S. First St. in San Jose. For many, it’s the only affordable way to get a warm coat, pair of shoes, or new socks.

“At the start of the pandemic, we had some hard choices that we had to make about which programs we could continue with and which ones we had to pause to mitigate risks,” said Damon Carter, director of community engagement at Sacred Heart, San Jose Spotlight.

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At first, little was known about how COVID 19 transmitted and survived on surfaces. The Clothes Closet has been closed for safety reasons as the non-profit organization has no laundry or steam-cleaning facilities. While it was closed, the nonprofit decided to redesign the area used for distributing clothes — and needed to restock the stock afterward. This contributed to the postponement of the reopening.

A few days before this month’s reopening, Sacred Heart announced its plans on social media, but not on its website or through its email newsletter for fear of being inundated with customers and clothing donations. Carter said employees also have concerns about not having enough volunteers and donations to meet the need.

Most of the members who arrived on Monday waited in line for food before the center opened at 9 a.m., standing under heaters and tents in the pouring rain. Few were aware of the reopening of clothing until they saw a sign in the building.

The Sacred Heart serves anywhere from 300 to 400 families a day, Carter told the San Jose Spotlight, and in the past many have relied on the wardrobe for help, too.

Sacred Heart Community Service member Robin waits in line. Photography by Kristen Bezo.

much needed program

Robin, who declined to give her last name due to the stigma often associated with services like Sacred Heart, was an early adopter of clothing at the soft opening. I searched for coats and shoes. While closing the clothes, Robin, who is in her 60s, said her only other option for getting clothes was to “beg for money.”

Before closing, Robin brought home clothes for all 10 people in her home, an independent living facility. Robin regularly receives food from the Sacred Heart, which is available to members once a week.

“I love it here, it’s No. 1,” she told San Jose Spotlight. “They have nice things here and everyone is so kind and understanding, so I keep coming.”

Sacred Heart members are given five pieces of clothing, one pair of shoes, and two accessories for each family member, as well as one blanket and one box of socks for each family.

Each customer has 10 minutes to shop and five minutes to check out, which includes counting their items and logging the visit into their account.

The nonprofit organization destroyed its former computer lab to create a new, smaller home for its clothing program. The former wardrobe, an extension outside the warehouse, contained a bookshelf and glass display counters where customers could find stuffed animals, accessories, and linens. The new checkout area consisted of several tables, and there was no longer room for a bookshelf.

“It now looks more like a retail store where you go to buy clothes,” Carter said. Sacred Heart employees try to give members a retail experience, often referring to them as “customers.”

John Tenayoka, a Texas businessman and author, learned about the services of the Sacred Heart from his uncle. He said the pandemic had exacerbated his financial difficulties, which began four years ago and forced him to sell his own apartment.

“I’m worried about finding an XL in my wardrobe,” said 63-year-old Tenayoka as he waited in line.

The new wardrobe at the service of the sacred community. Photography by Kristen Bezo.

Longtime volunteer Mike Caban said XL sizes and up are hard to come by and usually have to be kept in the back room due to scarcity. Members looking for these sizes should ask for volunteers.

Since most Sacred Heart members were unaware of the reopening, the line was small for most of the day and the volunteer groups didn’t have much work to do.

The blankets went quickly, and most customers searched for coats. Carter said coats, blankets, and men’s business attire for job interviews are the most requested items.

“We ask donors to bring things in good condition and wash them,” he said. “We value our members, so we don’t want anyone to come up with anything they don’t personally wear.”

Sacred Heart Community Service is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Contact Kristin Bizu at pizzokristen@gmail.com.


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