The Clothing Closet at Conneaut Church of Christ, 448 W. Main Road, has changed its name to “God’s Closet” with good reason.
To God give the glory, say volunteers of the 44-year-old clothing bank that started with just a few items in a 10-by-10-foot room in 1972.
Seventeen years later, when the church built a new sanctuary -- selling the old pews to the former Free Methodist Church on Buffalo Street that is today Arlene’s Broadway on Buffalo – The Clothing Closet moved into the former sanctuary.
Fast-forward 45 years and the renamed “God’s Closet” has embarked on a secondary mission.
In addition to giving away clothing, shoes, coats, and household items to some 50 families per week from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesday, God’s Closet has begun providing clothing for soon-to-be-released inmates from Lake Erie Correctional Institution (LaECI).
Men’s clothing – shirts, pants, belts, socks, shoes, underwear – is urgently needed so that no inmate has to walk out of prison, possibly facing a job interview, with nothing.
This new mission began when Lake Erie Correctional Institution’s Clarice Wofford approached Church of Christ pastor’s Tim Kraus, with whom she serves on the Citizens’ Circle, a one-stop shop that helps with re-entry transition and offer support. .
The Church of Christ is just one of several Ashtabula County congregations that Wofford approached.
“I was naked and you clothed me… When you did it to these my brothers, you were doing it to Me,” Wofford said, quoting Matthew 25. “We want to be the right hand of God. Who better than faith-based organizations to do this?”
Wofford said the clothing need is most critical for inmates who lack support systems, such as families, outside prison walls.
“There are predators out there who see prisoners get off the bus, and can tell they are ex-inmates because of what they’re wearing,” she said. “They often prey on them and offer to help them do the wrong thing. Our goal is to send them out of prison looking like someone.”
“Looking like someone” is one of inmates’ final steps of re-entry. From the moment inmates enter the private prison, Lake Erie Correctional Institution’s goal is to make their time there productive. Inmates are offered GED and job skills training such as CAD, construction, drywall, electricity, and more. Ashtabula Jobs and Family Services teaches job resume writing. LaECI also sponsors Job Fairs with businesses willing to hire former inmates. The next Job Fair is May 10.
Some inmates who upload resumes on Ohio Means Jobs web site have jobs waiting. Others upon release go to Jobs and Family Services, which links them to employers seeking their skills.
“There are no hand-outs,” said Wofford. “We help those who try to help themselves. If they don’t transition well, it’s because they don’t apply themselves and take advantage of the resources. For those who try to make their lives better, we help. For those who do, proper clothing is necessary.”
Wofford described the most dire need is men’s clothing in extra-large sizes.
“We need 2, 3 and 4X, and shoes sizes 9 to 14. We need work boots, because how can they go into the work force without boots? And belts to hold their pants up,” she said.
Ideally, each inmate receives more than one outfit – perhaps casual clothing, such as jeans, and nicer apparel for a job interview.
Securing clothing is part of the re-entry process that begins about six months in advance of an inmate’s release.
Once she has an inmate’s release date, Wofford shoots Kraus an e-mail with that date and the inmate’s sizes.
“For some, it’s really critical, because we have inmates who come with maybe one month left in their sentence because they’ve served part of it somewhere else, or they’ve gotten credit,” she said.
Wofford picks up the clothing from God’s Closet and delivers it to LaECI. The clothing is marked with the inmate’s name and distributed through prison housing, along with an enclosed note.
“They are so happy when they get their clothes,” Wofford said. “They really don’t want to look like prisoners.”
Wofford’s efforts to help inmates with re-entry extend beyond Ashtabula County.
“I go to all Northeast Ohio counties, meet with Citizens Circles and re-entry coalitions all over the state to assess the needs of our inmates being released,” she said. “Every county has been wonderful – Lake, Cuyahoga, Mahoning, Trumbull – about helping. We have been so blessed.”
Wofford said that in the year since God’s Closet began supplying clothing for inmates being released,
many of the 50 or 60 inmates released weekly have been helped.
God’s Closet volunteers Judy Kirksey and Dana Hannold say that a lot of prayers have been answered.
“For every prisoner, I pray, ‘Please, Lord, let me find a pair of shoes,’ and by the grace of God, they come. It’s like loaves and fishes,” Kirksey said.
Kirksey and Hannold are confident that the Conneaut community’s donating unused clothing to God’s Closet will allow the needs of inmates as well as local families to be met.
“Please share what you have. Let us recycle your clothing,” Kirskey says.
Everything in God’s Closet is in like-new condition without rips, stains or tears. It is given away at no cost.
Families who come into God’s Closet must sign in and are limited to two bags of free clothing per week
“We encourage sharing,” said Hannold, a ten-year God’s Closet volunteer. “If people need more, I tell them to see me.”
“Some people give clothing here because it’s free [to others],” Kraus explained. “We do move some of our clothing on to Goodwill, clothing that for whatever reason, people chose not to take. There, it does provide jobs.”
Kirksey knows that expanding God’s Closet hours beyond 10 a.m. to noon Tuesday would help the community. But for that to happen, more donations are needed.
God’s Closet is also accepting formal gowns to provide prom dresses at no cost. And, plastic bags are always needed.
Contact Church of Christ at 440-599-7401 with questions or to donate to God’s Closet