She was a little blonde girl who came to school every day with perpetually knotted, tangled and dirty hair until a local woman presented her with a comb and shampoo and how to use it. She simply never had learned to comb her own hair and didn't comprehend that her dirty, disheveled appearance was the reason behind the teasing. The next day, she came back to school transformed with straight, shining hair and an equally shining smile, her self-esteem improved by that one small change.
Greasy hair, perspiration, and body odor — sometimes kids from financially strapped families in Maine don't even know how to maintain their own hygiene, because soap, detergent, toothpaste and shampoo products are just not available in their houses and their parents don't know how to encourage healthy habits. It's certainly a real issue in Maine. Contrary to popular perception, food stamps do not cover these particular kind of nonfood items and so certain families often do without.
Four women in Belfast began to hear from school nurses about kids getting bullied because they came to school in dirty, unwashed clothing and had never been taught to comb their hair or wash their faces and hands regularly.
"We knew of school nurses and teachers who were putting their own money toward laundry detergent and washing the kids' clothes themselves in the school's industrial washers and dryers just so those kids could have some pride in their appearance," said Judy Beebe.
Beebe and her three friends, Sharron Walsh, Debbie Mitchell and Juliet Baker decided to do something about it on a grassroots level. In 2012, they formed a small group out of their homes, calling it the Soap Closet and began to buy brand name personal care items and distribute it monthly to food pantries in Waldo County. The items included brand name laundry detergent, dish soap, bar soap, tooth paste, toothbrushes, deodorants, shampoo and toilet paper. Every month, families who visit a food pantry the Soap Closet supports, are able to take home three personal care products per month, thanks to their efforts. Most choose toilet paper as their first choice.
The women initially raised $3,600. As the years went by, they've received grants and community funding and donations so they could buy more personal items. Grants from Athenahealth, Maine Community Foundation and Trauger funds from St. Margaret's Church in Belfast have also aided in their expansion.
Community members have built upon the Soap Closet's mission with their own donations, as well.
"We have a local dentist who is allowing us to buy toothbrushes at cost. Other dentists have donated to us as well," said Walsh. "Local store managers have cooperated by allowing us to purchase in bulk at sale prices so we can stretch our dollars."
The Soap Closet received its 501(c)3 status in April. Before that, Waldo County Triad served as fiscal sponsor. Their initial mission has now expanded to three programs and they serve more than 400 families in Waldo county. Their first program supports four food pantries (Belfast, Searsport, Northport and Jackson) serving nine communities in Waldo County. Their second program supports school children, distributing products to eight public schools in Waldo county.
"We deliver whatever the school nurses tell us they need for their children. We take a lot of hotel/motel small bottles that people donate and deliver those as well," said Beebe. "We find that kids need deodorant and shampoo the most. We've gotten reports from the nurses that these donations have made an enormous difference in the way the kids have taken charge of their own cleanliness."
She added that several of the schools have initiated a hygiene class to teach kids healthy habits in tandem with the donations.
The third program, just like the first two, puts compassion before judgment, supporting incarcerated men in their transition to society. The women put together what they call a "Re-entry Kit" consisting of brand name shaving cream, deodorant, razors, body wash, toothpaste and toothbrushes for men who leave incarceration and go into the Sheriff's Office Re-Entry Program.
"Many of these men are in the last six months of their incarceration where they have to work in the community and earn some income," said Walsh. "They leave jail and work all day then go back to jail at night, but they have no spending money to start for these kind of basics." Just having this kit allows them to come to work clean and presentable.
The men pay it forward by helping the Soap Closet with manual labor. "When we have a big shipment come in to Hannaford, Walgreen's, Reny's or the Dollar Store, we call these guys and they come help us do all the heavy lifting," said Walsh.
The food pantries find the women's dedication to this community project to be invaluable. A recent card Walsh received from the Jackson Food Pantry states:
To the women of the Soap Closet,
The Jackson Food Pantry Board of Directors would like to thank you for helping us provide essential, nonfood items to our clients. It is very much appreciated by the people we serve.
Walsh said other food pantry staff have approached her in the community and said, “We can’t thank you enough. You’ve made a world of difference.”
“It seems like just a small thing, just three dollars for three products,” said Mitchell. “But it really helps these families so much.”
The women put in more than 1,000 volunteer hours annually. “We each take turns each month to do the shopping and distribution. On the side, I handle all the schools, Debbie handles the money and Sharron takes care of the Re-entry Program along with the grant applications,” said Beebe.
Each week, they shop locally, keeping all of their product purchases to under a dollar per product. “We check the flyers and look for sales all the time,” said Walsh. They haven’t had time to create a social media presence, but will be considering it. For now, their good deeds are heard of by word of mouth.
So far, the Soap Closet is the only organization in Maine to provide non-food items to low-income families in the Midcoast area. However, the need in other parts of the state is just as great—they see it first hand all the time. “We’d love to make a challenge to other groups similar to ours,” said Mitchell. “We would love to see what we’re doing replicated in other counties of Maine.”
From the smallest hotel shampoo bottle to the large amount donated anonymously, every little thing donated helps the Soap Closet continue their good work to help Mainers help themselves. Although cash donations are always useful, currently they are also accepting items such as laundry detergent, dish soap, bar soap, tooth paste, toothbrushes, deodorants, shampoo and toilet paper. All donations are tax deductible and can be sent to: P.O. Box 163 Belfast, Maine 04915. For more information contact: 207- 930-3604.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org