AHI EZER YESHIVA The Much-Beloved Institution Moves Forward

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By: Sophia Franco

A baby is born. The healthy cry is heard around the world, and it’s like the opening bell…on your mark, get set, go! Let the shopping begin! Cute little onesies in size 6 months grow too small in the blink of an eye, as do size 24 months, and the two’s, four’s, and six’s. As our children grow up and out of each precious item, we pack the clothes up carefully, hoping that someone will make use of this priceless wardrobe. But when that doesn’t happen, then what?

Fifteen years ago, Alyssa Shweky and Gloria Setton were captains at Sephardic Bikur Holim, helping families deal with different issues. Seeing no end to the needs of their clients, it was difficult for them to watch the struggle.  Almost all their clients could barely afford food, let alone clothing. Simultaneously, Alyssa and Gloria’s own children were growing out of their wardrobes, inch by inch. They came up with a simple idea. It wouldn’t solve all the problems, but it would certainly ease the burden. “Rather than throwing our old clothes into giant bags and giving them away, why don’t we sift a little more carefully and give the better items directly to our clients?”

Two Community Women Address A Pressing Need

The two dynamos began to call friends and ask them to do the same. It wasn’t hard; people were thrilled to have a good home to send their better pieces to. The girls organized the clothing by size and stored them in the trunk of Alyssa’s car. They made bags to bring to their clients, and asked other captains if their clients might like some merchandise, too. It was really miraculous, and ingenious. Word got around, and from this small outpost they dressed many, many children. After a year or two though, just as the kids outgrew the clothes, this “Dress a child”project, as it was called, outgrew the car. Luckily, Robin Shalom decided to make a tremendous offer: “Use my basement,”she said. “You know you need to.”

A Step Up To The Basement

Everyone was so busy with different projects, so when Rena Ashear began to get involved, she kind of took charge. “Robin was incredible,”Rena recalls, “A group of us would all come over with our kids on Tuesdays and make ourselves at home in her basement. The kids would play together in one area and we would all be sorting and tagging in another. Once a week we’d organize, and other days we’d be meeting clients, sizing up kids, and making calls to gather more merchandise. We’d pick out an assortment in the right sizes, and sometimes the kids would come in, and other times the parents would take things home for their children to try, just like in any clothing store. So many people were generous, and their donations made a difference in our client’s lives.Back then, all the clothes came from our closets, and the closets of friends and relatives. Today, almost two decades later, the bulk of our donations come from wholesalers, retailers, and small stores. Almost 95% is brand new, with tags attached.”

Beatrice Sutton got involved around eight years ago. She recalls, “It was weird how it evolved, it was like the old shampoo commercial, she told two friends, and she told two friends, and she told two friends. Both donors and clients would ring Robin’s bell round the clock. It was hectic, but she never complained. After a couple of years though, we decided it was time to move on. Bikur Holim found a little area in their Kings Highway building for us. It was truly a closet, but it worked.”

Gina Haddad calls this project “her baby.” She explains, “When my youngest turned three I heard about these girls storing clothes in their trunks and distributing them to those less fortunate. As my daughter grew out of her clothes I understood how important this project was.”

A Store Is Born

A couple of years ago Rena Ashear’s parents, Sara Ann and Morris Setton, decided to make a large donation to the project that their daughter had taken on as her own for so many years. They wanted to help create a proper space for the clothing, a real “store” where families could come, find what they need, and feel good about it. The Settons believe that no matter how trivial it may seem, wearing the right styles and owning clothing that fits properly can lift a person’s spirit up and give them confidence. For a parent to be able to provide that security is priceless, especially when everything else is so difficult.

With the new Bikur Holim building on McDonald Avenue finally renovated, a beautiful sunny space became available. The original organization known as “Dress-a-child,” revamped and renewed, now became “Sara Ann’s Closet.” The store is beautiful, complete with a bathroom, dressing room, custom shelving, and matching hangers. 

This project has grown tremendously over the years. So many of our community families are in children’s wear, and they have truly opened their hearts. Rena reaches out to anyone she can think of for donations of new, unused clothes, school uniforms, winter coats, and whatever else they can provide. Many companies hear about this and reach out to Rena as well. She explains, “We run Sara Ann’s Closet on practically a zero budget. Every item is donated. Every girl volunteers her time. When we have extra money, we try to give gift cards to the families so they can shop elsewhere as well, in stores like The Gap, Children’s Place, or Junees. The kids are so excited to be able to go out and shop like everyone else. You have no idea what it means to them to be able to wear what the other kids are wearing.”

Confidentiality is key, so shopping is only allowed by appointments, which are carefully staggered so that no client bumps into another accidentally. The girls explain, “These are your friends and neighbors, your children’s classmates and possibly even your own family members. It has become so hard in the real world. So many people need our help.”

Volunteers Step Up To The Plate To Do Hesed

Rena is so grateful for the volunteers and for the difference this project has made in so many people’s lives. There is always someone who needs something. But more than that, the “chat” we have for Sara Ann’s closet is nothing short of miraculous. Not only do we make decisions and plans, but also in a heartbeat we mobilize like an army when there is a crisis or tragedy in the community.”

Gina recalls, “Unfortunately this community has seen its share of emergency situations. In certain cases, we are scrambling to get entire wardrobes to families in need, from underwear to socks to everything else you can think of. I remember one time when there was a fire. We called friends who we knew had the right sizes. We made outfits, and we did our best to make normalcy. Then we thought about those kids, and what they would do over Shabbat, and we got them games and toys. One good deed always seems to roll into another.” 

Carrie Goldstein has also been involved for many, many years now. “I do this, and I think: How lucky am I to be able to walk into any store or go on any website and buy whatever I want and need? I appreciate everything I have so much more since I’ve been involved. The clients are so happy no matter what we give them. It can be a pocketbook or a scarf. I remember one year we had cartoon socks and the kids went crazy for them! On Simchat Torah we’d get all these extra knapsacks from the shuls. What a smile we’d get when we gave those away! So even if I’m rushed, and it’s hard to meet the clients on a particular day, I still walk out so happy because I know I helped make them feel good. Almost nothing is more important than that.”

At Sara Ann’s Closet they service every age and many different communities. They don’t differentiate by religion, sect, or class. “We all have the same goal, the same dream,” Carrie explains. “Moms bring in their children and they get very excited; they think they’re in a real store. The kids are so gracious, and often afraid to take too much. We always try to make them feel special, because isn’t that what it’s about?”

All wholesale and retail donations graciously accepted. To volunteer or donate please email renaashear@yahoo.com.