When the river took the little that Sultan’s homeless riverbank dwellers had in the flood of 2008, Donna Rice found a mission in life.
“I saw them sitting there cold; no sleeping bags,” she said. “I started bringing them stuff and feeding them, and one thing led to another.”
Rice started out bringing clothes to the homeless, then food, then doing their laundry. Eventually she took two homeless men in, and two years later, they still share her home, helping her out with household chores.
This year, Rice, 75, has taken on yet another community service role, that of managing Tabitha House, a clothing bank in the basement of Sultan’s United Methodist Church, where she and the other parishioners also provide other services to those in need.
The United Methodist Church has run Tabitha House for more than 10 years. Every Tuesday, from noon until 3 p.m., the church opens the basement, which is a large, bright room full of clothing of all descriptions, displayed just as it would be at a Goodwill or St. Vincent DePaul.
But the difference about Tabitha House is that all the clothes are free.
Clothes come from all over. When Monroe’s consignment shop Cinderella’s Closet went out of business, a lot of their clothes went to Tabitha House. Monroe’s Garage of Blessings (featured in last week’s Monitor) doesn’t take clothes, but when clothes are donated, they go to Tabitha House. And lots of community members donate clothes to the organization, as well.
It’s a good thing there is a steady supply, because clothes go out pretty quickly, too.
In the three hours that Tabitha House was open on Tuesday, 38 families came to look for clothes and baby things such as bouncers and strollers, about 100 people in all.
Rice, who works with several other volunteers at the church, is working to make Tabitha House even more useful. She and the other volunteers are pulling out any clothes that have stains or rips, making sure everything is presentable. And they are putting up signs to help people find what they are looking for, illustrating the signs with pictures for the benefit of those who don’t speak English or can’t read.
Tabitha House runs on very little money. What it needs most is clothes.
“Our biggest need is men’s clothing,” said Rice. “And we need kitchen items, and right now warm winter clothing. I also have a friend that knits hats, so anyone that wants to donate yarn, I give it to her and she makes hats for us.”
Financial donations, however, could help Rice and the United Methodist Church with another major service; that of providing meals for those in need.
Tuesday nights, the United Methodist Church prepares and serves a free meal at 4 p.m. It’s a program the church calls Loaves and Fishes.
And Rice, after a hiatus in which she was caring for her ill husband who has since passed away, has resumed providing a meal per week, as well.
Starting last week, she has begun serving a free dinner every Friday night, a tradition she began calling Mama’s Meals when she first started several years ago.
That meal Rice provides out of her own pocket, sometimes with a few volunteers, sometimes on her own. She gets food donations sometimes from the Rock Church and the Maltby Food Bank, but often simply provides from what she has.
“I make a lot of soups and casseroles,” she said. She cooks for up to 25 people or so, many of them homeless and others surviving on low incomes, serves the food, then does all the dishes.
In the time she has been serving the homeless, Rice said she’s come to understand some of the things that lead to homelessness.
“Some were in Vietnam, they had PTSD, and they never treated it. They had lot had emotional problems; they’d get divorced and whatnot and they’d start drinking or doing drugs,” she said. “Some came from war right into drugs because when you see things like they saw it’s hard to get it out of your head. And until Iraq, they really didn’t do too much for soldiers. Some had hardships, bad homes, and a lot of them won’t talk about what happened to them.”
So along with the food she provides, she also, from her own pocket, provides things like batteries and clean socks, laundry soap and toothpaste, candles and shampoo. and at Christmas time she tries to get a few little extras.
The work she and the others do at the United Methodist Church is sometimes a big job, she acknowledged. But, she said, it gives life meaning.
“People in this world have got to take care of people,” she said.
To contribute clothes to Tabitha House or to support the services provided by the United Methodist Church and Donna Rice, call the Sultan United Methodist Church at (360) 793-1727.