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JANUARY 19, 2009   

National Day of Service (clean out your closet)

Not long after Martin Luther King Jr. day became a federal holiday in 1986 the Housing Resource Center, an organization two friends and I founded, was considering whether to take the day off. Jim LaRue, one of the co-founders, emphatically stated that Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn't feel honored if his holiday became just a day to goof off. Jim proposed that our entire staff of five spend the day working at a nearby homeless shelter. So we did.

PIles of clothes in the back of carIt seemed like a good idea then, and even better now. I was thrilled to hear about Barack Obama's National Day of Service to commemorate Dr. KIng. I went to the website to find activities in Cleveland and decided to collect clothes for the men's homeless shelter.

I emailed a group of friends who might be interested, talked about it on Facebook, even mentioned it on Twitter. I suggested that people go through their closets to find clothes they no longer wanted. I offered to pick the clothes up and take them to the shelter. I checked my own closet and filled one of the giant bags you see here in the back of my car.

It's a clear sign of the abundance we take for granted that the clothes you see here are castoffs from only two men's closets.

OK, that's not quite correct. One of my Christmas presents this year was a handsome sweater that I knew I'd never wear (I'm not a sweater guy, and I already have three or four in my drawer). So I returned the gift and gave the cash to Joanne to spend on her trip to Unique Thrift, a nearby second-hand store. I asked her to buy as many warm shirts, sweater and pants as she could for $21. Since Monday is Half-Price Day, that netted about eight shirts and sweaters and a half-dozen pairs of pants.

I'd hoped to fill the back of my PT Cruiser with clothes and was a little disappointed, but it was still worth doing. When I went to the shelter a couple of guys volunteered to unload the car, and I had a brief conversation with a young man from Buffalo trying to get by in Cleveland. It was very short, as conversations go, but reminded me that "homeless" is a generic term that obscures the fact that these men are individual human beings with unique stories.

At the end of the day I was happy to have done my small part in a big effort. I only wish I'd have made an effort to stick around the shelter for a while to meet more people. With my quick drop-off I missed the human contact that comes from working together, often the most valuable thing about volunteering. Many years ago I used to cook and serve free meals in our neighborhood and I remember that aspect fondly. Maybe next year, or maybe I need to think about volunteering more often.

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