By Jo Anne Embleton
What started out initially as a clothing ministry for teens in need has blossomed into a multi-faceted ministry where God is in the details.
While Jacksonville's Clothes Closet and More might not be as well-known to Cherokee County residents as other entities that help those in need, executive director Mickey Gear wholeheartedly feels “God loves what we're doing here” based on how, over the past eight years, the ministry keeps growing despite challenges.
Simply put, God “provides everything we need … I could you stories that would give you chills of how he has provided for us,” Gear said. “We get a little short sometimes, and we don't have extra money, but we've always had enough money.”
Some one dozen volunteers operate the ministry four days a week from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Last year, they served 1,026 families; already this year, the number is roughly half that, at 559 families served. Many of the clients are elderly, though The Clothes Closet is utilized by area foster families and families whose children are part of the Head Start program.
“We have no geographical boundaries whatsoever, although 97 percent (of these clients) are from Jacksonville. They come from Rusk County, Smith County, Henderson County. They come from anywhere. We don't care where they live. If they have needs, we help,” Gear said.
It all began in 2008, when she agreed to help friends distribute clothing to students at The Eagles Nest Christian Youth Center because they devote their full attention to the ministry they way they felt was warranted.
Slowly, the outreach spread to include a wider clientele, and “a good day would see 10 people coming in,” Gear said. “It was just a really small (ministry) located in a tiny area.”
Then came the back-to-back hurricanes that struck the U.S. Gulf Coast: Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, in southeast Louisiana, while Rita made landfall less than a month later on Sept. 24 in Sabine Pass, Texas. Evacuees from the first storm struggling to make some sort of semblance of their topsy-turvy lives found themselves unable to go back home immediately because the storm surge from Rita inundated low-lying communities near the Louisiana coast.
“Evacuees only brought enough things for two or three days, because normally, they would have been able to go back home,” Gear recalled. “But this time, they ended up with only they had come here with, so we decided we were going to help them out.”
The directors of the Eagles Nest chose to suspend the teen ministry “for a while to let us take over the complete area,” she said. “It actually took three months before we were able to (let them have their space back) because evacuees kept coming and they stayed – a slow day during that period would be about 100 people all needing jeans, shoes, anything they could wear. Adults, children … it was crazy.”
Organizers took to the airwaves and put out pleas for help, and “people from the community were bringing things by the trailer loads – we were slammed with the most wonderful gifts of clothing, and people volunteered from all over,” she recalled.
While shorter-terms needs of evacuees were met, it also brought to light the needs of the local community, because “when the community heard about us, they started coming in and using us,” and soon, The Clothes Closet and More was classified as a 501(3)(c) organization.
Over the years, the ministries have operated out of three locations, its most recent home at 314 S. Main Street. The former Jacksonville Building and Loan Association site has approximately 4,200 square-feet of space from which the clothes ministry, a weekend lunch ministry, a sleeping bag ministry and a Cinderella's Closet operate.
There also are the “backpacks for homeless” program, a summer community garden and a new computer course offering for those wanting to become familiarized with them; this newest initiative was launched earlier this month, and two-hour classes are held Wednesday and Friday mornings, while a four-hour course is taught on Saturday mornings.
Then there's probably the biggest ministry of all: That of presence, of simply providing a ear for listening or a hug for someone needing affirmation.
“I can come in and talk to Mickey whenever I need,” said Maegan Jones, a Jacksonville resident who has been performing community service at the site since January. “It's awesome, and the people here are so giving.”
“This desk –” Gear waved her hand toward a plain wooden desk situated at the entrance of the building – “is the most important place in this building.”
And the one who sits behind it “must have an attitude of loving,” because in a very real way, he or she is the face of Christ to others, she explained. “That is our goal.”
In their quiet way, volunteers share Christ with those they serve, especially through prayer.
“We pray for people,” writing names on a list and offering up petitions on their behalf, Gear said. “We don't just have a list, then move the names off and forget those people.”
And those prayers are shared in a more tangible way, via written Scripture verses that are included with sack lunches and bags of clothing.
“People ask for those verses if they're not in there,” Gear said. “One woman told me she posted the last one she received on her front door because it meant so much to her.”
The biggest blessing, however, is what their clients bring to the volunteers and staff at The Clothes Closet.
“Oh, this ministry becomes a part of you,” she said. “Once you become involved in what we do here, it definitely becomes a part of you. It just feels like family here.”
Katherine Morrison, who leads the basic computer course that was launched in early April, agreed. “It's like coming to Grandma's house. I love it here.”
Local volunteer Marie Gresham added, “You fall in love with the people – it's just so rewarding. I love it.”
Jones, who admitted she'd never heard of the place before being assigned community service, said she could “see herself coming back when my community service is done – I was born here but I never knew about this place. It's a neat organization.”
And that's a challenge – besides a need for more volunteers – Gear finds to be the most serious: People here just don't seem to be aware of these ministries, and she'd like for that to change.
“I know God's not done yet,” she said.
Meanwhile, “we just keep doing what Jesus told us to do – didn't he tell us to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry? Didn't he tell us to give the thirsty a drink of water?” she asked. “God's hand has been in every phase of this ministry, and it shows. People are amazed how he shows his faithfulness, that he's honoring what we do because we honor him. We give him all the credit and all the glory for what's happening here.”
“And it's all been good,” she smiled.
To learn more about the different ministries at The Clothes Closet and More, or to help fulfill a wish list that includes a new clothes dryer, among other items, contact Gear at 903-586-0204, or visit 314 S. Main St. in Jacksonville between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Saturday.
The ministries are funded primarily through donations from local corporations, churches and individuals, as well as through fundraisers and grants.
At present, The Clothes Closet and More is taking part in a Feinstein Foundation challenge grant, in which funds collected through the end of April will be matched by the foundation to benefit local food ministries.
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