A client in his early 20s looked as if he needed new pants, so CeCe Krokenberger of Irondequoit pulled a pair off the rack for him to consider.
“Oh, no,” she remembered him saying. “I wear a smaller size.”
Krokenberger, a volunteer at Matthew’s Closet of Rochester’s Corpus Christi Church, then realized the man appeared larger only because he was wearing every article of clothing he owned.
“He was living in an unfurnished apartment and trying to get on his feet,” Krokenberger said. “He had on three pairs of pants, because he had nowhere to store it. Then we needed to cut something, and he had a pair of scissors in his pocket. Literally, he had everything he owned with him.”
The client, who had been released from a drug-rehabilitation program, left with some clothing and a winter coat. A short time later, he returned, but not for more clothing.
“He felt he hit the jackpot,” Krokenberger added. “He was happy, and he came back later to give us a $5 donation.”
A volunteer for five years, Krokenberger finds great reward at Matthew’s Closet, an outreach ministry dedicated to providing gently used clothing to those in need.
“There is such great need in the community,” she said. “I was very surprised at how many in our own community are in such situations. One recent day we gave away 500 articles of clothing. It’s incredible, and it speaks to the fact that we have to continue to do it.”
Originally founded in 1991, Matthew’s Closet offers men’s, women’s and children’s clothing. The ministry, which also provides some household items, is divided into two services. The retail program is open to the general public and allows consumers to shop for nominally priced clothes. The second is a referral program, through which more than 125 social-service agencies identify clients in need and refer them to Matthew’s Closet. With an appointment, a client comes to the store with a referral for a few, free clothes.
Among referring agencies are ABC Head Start, AIDS Rochester, Monroe County’s Department of Social Services, Child Protective Services, Catholic Family Center, Monroe County Correctional Facility, Salvation Army, Veteran’s Outreach, Rochester Mental Heath Center and Genesee Alcohol Treatment Center, to name a few.
Last year, the ministry provided 30,000 articles of free clothing to more than 3,000 clients in the referral program alone. Operating with two part-time, paid managers and a staff of volunteers, the closet’s annual budget exceeds $50,000. The retail side of the operation generates about $30,000 each year, so the difference must be closed with fundraising and donations.
Area parishes and organizations either tithe or hold clothing drives for Matthew’s Closet. And in 2004, the ministry received $500 from the annual Catholic Courier/Catholic Charities Christmas Appeal, which was used to purchase new coats, socks and undergarments.
“Obviously, much of the monetary donations we get we have to purchase undergarments,” said Paul Robinson, a volunteer and chairperson of Matthew’s Closet Advisory Board. “And if there’s a needed item, then we’ll go out and make those purchases.”
For example, demand for plus-size men’s coats and children’s hats and mittens exceed the volume of donated clothing and frequently must be purchased.
“It feels great to be involved,” Robinson said. “There’s no other way to describe it. We get a lot more out of it than we put into it. The staff and volunteers all try to provide an atmosphere of warmth, dignity and fun. We laugh a lot.”
Despite this current atmosphere, Matthew’s Closet has also weathered its share of painful times. In 2000, a schismatic group broke away from Corpus Christi Church, and with the split, all five of the parish’s ministries closed. Matthew’s Closet went bankrupt.
“It was hard, to be honest,” Robinson said. “It was a very painful time for everybody, and we closed for about three weeks. We knew closing for good was not an option, so several of us picked up the referral side on a volunteer basis. Then we built on that and we are where we are today.”
Clients such as Ethel Crockett are grateful for their perseverance.
“I thank God every day (for Matthew’s Closet),” Crockett said. “It’s a good place for people who don’t have a lot, like me. They have good-quality clothes. They are not all worn out, and I can provide for my family. I have three daughters to clothe.”
Crockett said she has been to Matthew’s Closet a few times, both to shop and through a referral.
“There are wonderful people there — friendly, nice,” she added. “I can’t say enough about it.”
Grenda McMillon, a case manager for Unity Health, agrees.
“We would be lost without them,” she said. “So many resources are drying up, and help is more limited for our clients. It’s a good resource to turn to, and because of their church community, I’ve never gotten any complaints. Clients ask specifically to go there.”
Robinson’s wife, Bea, one of the paid co-directors, has a collection of thank-you cards on her desk.
“People are so grateful and give you a hug,” Bea said. “Sometimes we’ll say a prayer as they’re walking out. It’s just a wonderful job, and the friendships are just great.”
Bea recalled the beginnings of one such friendship, when a preschool boy came in to shop with his mother. While there, the 4-year-old watched Bea place empty hangers on a rod and asked if he could help.
“He helped me stack quite a few, and when we were done, he wanted to know if he could come back to volunteer,” Bea remembered. “I asked him why, and he replied, ‘Because you’re my new friend.'”