Finding Warmth This Winter

By LIFT on December 19, 2014

Categories: First Person Perspective, Our Work

With last winter’s chilling temperatures and record-breaking snowfalls projected to continue into Winter 2015, I ask you: What is your most valued possession this winter?

For many individuals struggling to make ends meet, the answer may be one that is often overlooked. For children who stand waiting at the bus stop or job seekers who walk far to get to job interviews because they can’t afford train fare, their answer may be a winter coat. The winter months create a particularly difficult struggle for low-income families as they are coping with higher-cost heating bills while trying to create a happy and safe holiday for their loved ones.

LIFT-Philadelphia’s response is to partner with Our Closet, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that operates pop-up clothing shops, to jointly host our second annual Coat Day. Most of the year, Our Closet opens every week at LIFT’s office and enables 80 to 120 individuals to shop, free of charge, for five articles of high quality clothing. Yet once a year, Our Closet supplies the coats, LIFT-Philadelphia provides the space, and we both supply the volunteers and good cheer and give out winter coats to those who need them.

Anticipating the immensity of the Coat Day event, LIFT staff closed the office to our normal business to welcome the Our Closet team, working together to create the ultimate shopping experience. I took a day off from my normal role as a LIFT Member Service Fellow and helped coordinate the event. As participants entered the office, relieved to be stepping in from a bitingly cold late fall day, they were welcomed by an Our Closet volunteer and LIFT staff member who ushered them to the shopping area.

In the early morning Our Closet team huddle, I was assigned the role of “Customer Experience” in the Boy’s Coat section of the shopping room. As the day began, I was still a bit fuzzy about what that meant, so I asked a veteran Our Closet volunteer for some tips. She encouraged me to prep for my shoppers by “getting acquainted with the coats on my table,” making sure that clothes were organized by size and getting a feel for where certain styles were. When a wide-eyed woman approached the women’s coats table to my right, I heard Jill Aschkenasy, Our Closet’s founder, say, “Welcome! Walk with me, tell me what you’re looking for.” I then started to really understand the personal attention and professionalism that make the Our Closet experience so impactful.  Despite the $0 price tags and the huge crowd of shoppers, Our Closet volunteers regard personal conversations and attentiveness as key parts of their work and what the shoppers deserve.

My personal highlight of the day involved a woman whom I recognized as a LIFT member who has been coming to the office for assistance in finding a job to enable her to move out of a difficult domestic situation. I noticed her posing in front of a mirror in a silver hooded parka and, gazing at her reflection, she exclaimed, “Oh, this is so me!” hugging the coat closer. It was clear to me that this experience offered her a source of pride and joy in a debilitating time.

On that cold November morning, we provided over 450 coats to more than 200 people. Any person, regardless of the difficulties they are facing, deserves to feel confident in what they are wearing. Everyone deserves a coat that is well-made that will protect her from the winter cold. She deserves to feel like a valued customer. With a sense of dignity and touch of class, the Our Closet/LIFT Coat Day meets a basic need of clothing for shoppers so they can better focus on handling other stressors in their lives. The LIFT and Our Closet partnership is one of the many ways we carry out our value of Collaboration as a key to success in helping our members reach their goals.

View more photos from the event here.