The ways in which social media can facilitate dangerous connections have been well-documented. But for the nonprofit sector, ourselves included, it’s a vital tool that has connected us to supporters and organizations that we would not have discovered otherwise. One such organization is South County Foster Closet, a partner nonprofit agency run by our friend Laura Storm and her dedicated team of volunteers (Beth Porter, Leslie Westbrook, Mandy Meilinger and Daphne Greiwe).
South County Foster Closet collects clothing items and donations to be distributed to kids living in foster care, as well as their families. A former elementary school teacher, Laura has been running the nonprofit out of her basement for just over a year now, and will soon be opening their first brick-and-mortar location—very similar to how our founder Stephanie Williamson started. “The impact of this work is so much more than just giving these families clothes or shoes or a carseat. What we’re really saying is, ‘We see you, and we support you.’ It’s really powerful,” says Laura.
Tell us about the mission of South County Foster Closet and how you originally connected with Helping Hand Me Downs.
We collect donated clothing, shoes, baby gear and more, which we distribute to foster families in need for free. Facebook is the main way we’ve been getting the word out, and I’ve also spent a lot of time researching organizations that are doing something similar to see how I can learn from them. I happened upon the Helping Hand Me Downs Facebook page and wanted to find out as much as I possibly could about Stephanie [Williamson, our founder] and the organization. What she’s been able to do, helping thousands of families with four locations in seven years, is just amazing. I finally mustered up the courage to reach out to her and ask how she did it. We met for coffee and not only was she incredibly compassionate, but so willing to share and help us out.
What led you to pursue nonprofit work?
I’d been talking with a group of friends from church for years about a way we could be of service. We started with a few small community projects, but we all wanted to be a part of something that would help create a lasting impact for people.
The horror stories about foster care are very real, but it can also be a beautiful, healthy family situation for parents and kids. My husband’s cousin is one such example. After some infertility issues, they pursued fostering as a way to build their family and ended up adopting four children. Interestingly enough, her parents (my husband’s aunt and uncle) saw how well it worked for them and also became foster parents. They all absolutely love it.
That got me thinking about how specifically helping foster kids and their families in our community could really work. Something in me felt called to do it.
Once you had that initial idea, how did you put it into action?
I discussed it with my friends and thought, “What if we start by just gathering shoes and clothes for kids?” We announced it on Facebook, which is how many of the families originally connected with us. None of us knew any foster families personally, and thought social media would be an effective way to gather donations and get the word out. At first we had 17 empty bins for donations, which we kept in my basement. Now we have over 100 bins, all bursting with amazing donations. It feels like God has been holding my hand and walking me through the process each day.
We’d love to grow further and connect with even more families, of course. Currently we’re working on our first brick-and-mortar location, which will act as a “store,” where kids and their families can come pick out items.
What has it been like for you to work with foster families, and how do you vet them?
It’s been an incredible experience. I love being able to follow up with them and ask how things are going. It becomes a real relationship, and the answers we get are so varied. Sometimes we’ll hear an amazing, beautiful story from parents about the joy of these kids coming into their homes, or the unique challenges of foster parenting. We’ve also met many of the kids, and they’re just amazing.
To vet them, we always ask for placement paperwork before contributing a donation. That’s how we deter people from taking advantage of what we offer. There have been a few cases where people have messaged us, and when we ask for paperwork we don’t get a response. Our donors provide us with these amazing items because they want them to go to kids in foster care, so I feel it’s our responsibility to deliver on that promise.
In the nonprofit community in particular, it’s a really powerful experience to have organizations partner together instead of competing. What has that been like for you?
In my experience, that assessment of the nonprofit community is really spot-on. We all want to come together to support these families and help as many people as possible. They also have a variety of needs, and I love that we never have to say to someone that we can’t help. There are so many nonprofits and agencies, so we can almost always refer them out if they have a need we can’t fulfill.
For example, we worked with a foster mother whose daughter was about to have a baby and they needed a crib. We were able to refer them to Helping Hand Me Downs, and I’m so honored to have that connection. It’s so crazy that just a year ago we had only a few bins of clothes in my basement, and now we’re at the beginning stages of hopefully being able to keep growing and help lots of families.