* This article was originally posed on Second Wave Media as part of the On the Ground Battle Creek series.
While other moms sought out back-to-school clothing at retailers like J.C. Penney, Chuck Spaulsberry’s mom went to the Charitable Union.
Believed to be one of the oldest nonprofits in Battle Creek, if not the oldest, the Charitable Unionprovides clothing, shoes, household items, and toys, among other things, free of charge to individuals and families who meet certain income guidelines. The Spaulsberry’s met those guidelines.
Throughout his grade school years, Spaulsberry says, the clothing that he and his sister wore to school was provided by the Charitable Union.
“All through grade school we were clients of (Charitable Union). We’d get our winter coats from there if we needed them and back to school stuff every few months,” Spaulsberry says. “At the time as a kid I knew we had limited income and I don’t ever remember being ashamed of it. I never felt bad about going there.”
The organization left an indelible impression on him for many reasons, not the least of which was its mission to care for the community’s most vulnerable populations with respect and dignity.
So, when a friend approached Spaulsberry about filling an opening on the Charitable Union’s board, he didn’t have to think very long about becoming involved on a different level.
The chairman of that board, Adam Dingwall, also came into contact with the Charitable Union as a child, but his was from another vantage point.
“I remembered from when I was a kid. My parents were Kennedy Democrats and they felt really strongly about giving back,” says Dingwall, retired CEO of the Battle Creek Family Y Center and Charitable Union board chair.
Dingwall was born and raised in Battle Creek and has memories of going with his parents to drop off clothing and other items at the Charitable Union. When his wife, Deb, began serving on the board, he said he got reconnected with the nonprofit.
The organization learns of the needs of their clients through other clients who volunteer to serve on an internal “Shoppers Council” which has been in place for more than 10 years.
“The idea behind this is to tell us what’s going on. Sometimes we’re not in touch with the people we serve and they’re the ones we want to talk to,” says Teresa Allen, Executive Director of the Charitable Union.
Though the organization’s focus remains on children, a more holistic approach has been taken over time to address outside factors that contribute to the demand for services provided, as a result of that input from Shoppers Council members. This is how a work boot program began.
In addition to providing access to free gently-used professional attire, the organization has been providing new and nearly new steel-toed work boots to anyone who can provide proper documentation that they have been hired for a job that requires those boots.
While this may seem like a small thing, for individuals who don’t have the financial means, it can often be the difference between becoming employed or not. This was particularly true for members of the city’s Burmese community who faced an additional obstacle.
Through feedback from the Shoppers Council, Allen and her staff learned that the community’s Burmese residents weren’t able to take advantage of the workboot program because they have smaller feet and those corresponding shoe sizes weren’t available and they were being turned away. Through a grant, workboots to fit them were purchased.
Allen says in 20, more than 710 individuals received the free workboots. The program was averaging 120 people a year when it first began. Once funding started coming, the increased to 310 people annually and in 2018 increased funding enabled the program to grow exponentially.
“If you get a job in manufacturing and you’re currently unemployed, you can get a free pair of steel-toed boots,” Allen says. “It’s a requirement of the job to have proper attire. This is a barrier to many of families we serve to enter the job market in manufacturing. These are good-paying jobs, but they need the proper shoes. This is one more thing that determines who could apply for a job.”
Allen says when you can take care of the parents and remove obstacles that may be preventing them from securing employment, it benefits their children long-term.
“You can still be at or below the poverty level, even if you’re working 40 hours a week,” Allen says.
New and gently-used boots are donated by businesses and individuals. Manufacturers also allow Charitable Union staff and volunteers to host boot drives at their facilities where staff members will bring in boots to donate. The organization’s “Be A Shoe Gooder” Giving Tuesday initiative highlighted the steel-toed boot program which resulted in monetary donations.
Allen says a strong base of supporters and donors have kept that campaign going. She says organizations that fund the Charitable Union are very supportive of these workforce development efforts.
The majority of the jobs Charitable Union clients apply for are in manufacturing and most referrals for boots come from temp agencies that do most of the hiring.
While the workboot initiative focuses on jobs in the manufacturing sector, the Charitable Union also has medical scrubs and hospitality uniforms for individuals taking an entry-level job, in addition to the basic business attire.
“One of first things a hiring manager can tell is that they need a proper skirt or shirt,” Allen says. “They can have that hard conversation with the job candidate and refer them to us.”
Those hard conversations expanded in 2017 to include a discussion about the need for feminine hygiene products which led to the creation of the “Period Poverty” program. Prior to this, the Charitable Union had these items available on an irregular basis.
“We got a phone call from a donor who said she’d inherited all of these tampons through a feminine product drive. So, we had these products and in three months gave away 1,200,” Allen says. “We were like ‘wow’, then our families came to us and asked if we could get more.”
Once awareness was brought to this ongoing need donations were received to purchase more tampons and pads. Since September 2018, more than 12,000 tampons and pads have been given away.
“This is an area that’s not talked about or funded much and these products are taxed,” Dingwall says. “When you think about the fact that if you’re a young lady and you don’t have these products, you don’t go to school, and you don’t go to work.
“We’ve had female clients who use their vacation time to deal with their periods. I’m really glad Teresa has stepped into this area because it really fits with what we do.”
Like the “Period Poverty” initiative, a call for bras was borne out of an emergency situation when a fire at an apartment complex in July 2018, displaced 79 residents, 20 of whom were women in need of bras. The Charitable Union was contacted by the local Red Cross chapter to let them know what the needs were.
Allen says she and her staff immediately began putting together bedding, household items and clothing for the fire victims. The bras were another story.
“A local service club stepped up and said that they would write us a check for the bras,” Allen says. “It was an educational experience. We were buying bras for strangers and trying to decide about sizes. We were trying to be very frugal, but we wanted to get two for each woman.”
This highlighted a need that the Charitable Union was already aware of. “If you’re a low-income family and you’re making tough choices, things like new socks or underwear are not high on the list. These also are areas that are sometimes overlooked by donors and supporters.”
Other areas that aren’t top of mind include prom dresses and wedding dresses, all of which are given away – no questions asked.
On March 14, students from the Homer Public Schools will be the first to select from among more than 600 prom dresses. Allen says all that’s required is a student I.D.
“If you’re in need of a wedding dress and that’s your barrier, I’ll give it to you,” Allen says.
Free clothing continues to be the backbone of the Charitable Union which had its beginnings following a charity ball in January 1887.
That dance was hosted by members of the Ladies of Social Responsibility, all of whom were wives of prominent businessman and members of local churches within the community.
“These ladies noticed children loitering on the street on schooldays and when they asked the children why they weren’t in school, they were told it was because they didn’t have the right clothes,” Allen says. “Knowing that these children wouldn’t be successful if they didn’t attend school, these ladies came together to hold a community dance and used the $232.75 raised to buy materials and thread to make clothing for these children.”
Today the Charitable Union serves about 10,000 unduplicated individuals and they total about 40,000 visits annually, Dingwall says. Clients can come in once a month to shop with proper referrals or documentation that could include Medicaid, WIC, or Bridge cards.
“They are also asked for social security cards for everyone in the household just one time so we can see that these people really exist,” Allen says. “But, if you don’t have a card we want them to come in and talk to us anyway because we might be able to connect them to other programs that can help their current situations.”
Dingwall says each of the collaborations the Charitable Union has formed are important to him, but he says the workforce development piece is especially significant for him because it has grown their base of support.
Of the organization’s $500,000 annual budget, 50 percent comes from grants; 34 percent comes from fundraising and community donor events; and 16 percent comes from revenues generated by sales, which are unrestricted funds, from a gift shop in the front of the building that houses the Charitable Union.
The majority of sales in the shop, which has been in business for 15 years, are handmade items such as baby buntings, mittens, hats and afghans made by volunteers. These volunteers are among more than 1,500 annually who augment the work of two full-time and 10 part-time employees.
Dingwall says the organization tries not to duplicate services provided by other area nonprofits. Major funders are increasingly encouraging nonprofits to collaborate where there are opportunities to do so.
“I think every organization in Battle Creek relies on donated money and grant money. Locally, there’s always going to be a challenge whether it comes from individual donations or foundations and that pool of funds is not growing,” Dingwall says.
The Charitable Union focuses on being accessible to be people who fall into the Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed (ALICE) category, identified by United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo region.
“Our local United Way said we have a certain amount of people living below the poverty level and we know where the line is and that we have a lot of people who are employed and one paycheck away from being in trouble,” Dingwall says. “In 2014 the United Way started looking at where that population was. In Calhoun County, 41 percent of residents are at or below that ALICE line and 47 percent of those residents live in Battle Creek. That’s a huge amount of the community.
“The Charitable Union made sure that these are the people we’re serving. We’re geographically located right in the midst of those neighborhoods where these residents live and close to the bus line, so they can ride or walk to us.”
Even though Spaulsberry has come a long way from the days of those frequent visits to the Charitable Union with his mom and sister, he has never forgotten what the organization did for them. Without this safety net, he says their lives would have been a lot tougher.
“It just gives hope to so many families,” he says. “For me, it really let me know at a young age that there are good people and organizations out there.”