By Lauren Hurwitz
Dedicating your life to a career in the not-for-profit world takes a special type of person – and lucky for Westchester residents, there’s no shortage of these women here in our county.
The Sharing Shelf
One of the premiere organizations doing good locally is The Sharing Shelf, founded by New Rochelle resident, Deborah Blatt.
Deborah Blatt founded The Sharing Shelf to address clothing insecurity and meet the basic material needs of low-income children and teens in Westchester County. When her children were younger, they attended the Barnard School in New Rochelle where they met families from all over the community. There was a big spread in the socioeconomic diversity, and a social worker was tasked with integrating the student body.
Deborah felt there was a need to step up and help the general population saying, “You want to do better for somebody because they might need your help with a coat, sweater, or t-shirt, so I started bringing in my kid’s hand-me-downs and noticed the social worker’s office was building up with stuff. At the same time, this social worker was getting me involved in other volunteer programs in New Rochelle.”
With Blatt’s professional background in law and non-profit, she was thinking about where her next path in life would take her. Having been exposed to the various opportunities to help local families through her children’s school, she decided there needed to be a better way to help people get the clothing they needed in a safe and efficient way, rather than leaving items in a school office.
“I talked to a friend at Family Services in Westchester, and we realized there was no one else doing this work.” The Head Start program had a closet with donated clothes, but Blatt continued, “It contained only adult clothing and nothing for the children.”
The Sharing Shelf was her way of creating, “a centralized location with the mission of addressing clothing insecurity but by capturing the hand-me-downs that were naturally flowing from Westchester homes.” Blatt started small by renting a basement in an office building in Rye in 2010 that was up for sale and eventually moved the growing program to a larger space in Port Chester in 2011.
Non-profits, schools, and community programs working with low-income families-in-need tap into The Sharing Shelf by filling out an application online and providing basic information about a child’s age, size, and gender. The Sharing Shelf encourages helpful comments such as Jane loves unicorns, butterflies, and the color purple.
Trained volunteers at The Sharing Shelf then pack her a Wardrobe Pack which consists of one week’s worth of seasonally appropriate clothing, customized for each child. In fact, the organization filled 4,365 Wardrobe Packs for children and teens in Westchester last year. Every pack also has one special item included like a khaki, dress, button-down shirt, or blazer in case they have a special occasion coming up and need to dress a bit fancier.
The Sharing Shelf expanded again earlierthis year into an adjacent unit in their building. The goal is to launch the first free store for teens in times of emergency and crisis where they can go pick out clothing for themselves called Teen Boutique in Real Life. The free store works in a similar way. The professionals apply on behalf of their teens-in-need, and then a shopping appointment is booked for that youth who can come in and pick out their own clothing.
The Sharing Shelf currently runs an off-site series of events called Teen Boutique in partnership with area community organizations and schools. At Teen Boutique, Blatt says, “The Sharing Shelf brings the store to the teens in a place they know and trust.” Teens are pre-registered and then come to their school or community center to shop for free. They get a certificate allowing them to choose a wardrobe of items such as jeans, leggings, new socks and underwear, hoodies, and, in the spring, prom or graduation attire.
“Clothing is so essential to one’s identity,” Blatt says, “and the goal of these Teen Boutique events is to empower them to choose their own clothing. These kids walk into the event, and they’re shy and guarded and don’t know what to expect, and then leave when they’ve found things they want! It’s a very empowering experience for these kids. At a recent event, it circled back because two of the girls arrived with photos to show me how they wore the outfits they chose a year earlier.”
For the summer, the Sharing Shelf is hosting one of its largest programs: Backpack to School. “Last year we saw a record increase in the number of children and teens who need backpacks. We will fill the packs with school supplies. Donors and volunteers lean in and join us for ‘packing day’ but we also need financial support. Donating $30 can get a child a new backpack with all the supplies they need if they’re in grades pre-k to 12,” says Blatt. Families who want to put together backpacks, can sign up to volunteer on Family Packing Day (August 12th) and individuals can sign up for Community Packing Day (August 21st).
Looking to get involved? The Sharing Shelf is always accepting volunteers on a daily basis at its warehouse. To donate, you can go online to their website, www.sharingshelf.org, and schedule a time to drop off your items in Port Chester, or a time for the Sharing Shelf to come to your home.
Girls Inc. Westchester
Serving girls throughout the United States and Canada and started almost 160 years ago, Girls Inc. has had a local affiliate dedicated to Westchester since 2007 and is currently led by Executive Director, Dr. Sharlise Smith-Rodriguez who says, “We work with young girls to empower and assist them in the challenges they may face in everyday life and help develop their leadership and advocacy skills for the future.”
Girls Inc. Westchester works with girls ages 9 through 18 leveraging their evidence-based curriculum which is aligned to, “Our mission of Strong, Smart, and Bold!” Smith-Rodriguez says another component of the program is helping girls learn more about STEAM-related fields because not everyone has access to these programs, and they continue to be significant for girls. “Earlier this year, we conducted Operation SMART at our office to encourage girls to learn more about science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They learned how to make wind cars, hovercrafts, and squishy circuits. These activities help them connect what they’re learning in school with STEAM-related careers. We teach via hands-on activities and experiments and present special guest speakers for relevancy.”
Another area of focus is on financial literacy such as learning to set up and maintain a checking account, why save, and giving girls real-life scenarios that teach them how to set financial goals and how to meet them. Past guest speakers that met with the girls were from JPMorgan Chase and PCSB Bank.
Girls Inc. Westchester is currently operating in the after-school programs in Ossining, Peekskill, Port Chester, Bedford Hills, and Mount Kisco, but they do serve girls across Westchester in Yonkers, Mount Vernon, and New Rochelle with in-person and virtual programming.
Smith-Rodriguez also says, “We have in-person programming about once a month on Saturdays called the Girls Leadership Council for middle and high school students to learn different leadership skills.”
A unique aspect of the organization is its hyper-local work with national companies. For example, they recently partnered with PepsiCo to address the “period poverty” crisis, where girls who don’t have the finances to buy menstrual products find alternative methods to address their menstrual cycle. Girls Inc. Westchester purchased products such as sanitary napkins, tampons, small wipes, panty liners, information about periods, etc. which PepsiCo employees packaged as part of their volunteer day.
Girls Inc. Westchester is always looking for volunteers who can facilitate hands-on activities with the girls while sharing their professional expertise. And of course, financial donations, sponsorships, and donations are always welcome. Visit www.girlsincwestchester.org for more information.
Humane Society of Westchester
Lee Anne Veley serves as the first-ever Executive Director of the Humane Society of Westchester where she has been volunteering since 2002. Having worked at IBM for 31 years before retiring, it may have shocked some that her next step was in the world of animals – but not Veley, who has a long history of loving pets.
Shortly after starting her volunteer work, Veley became active on the Board and ended up working full-time at the organization once the bookkeeper left. “We were also taking on a major capital campaign at the time. I started doing financial management and bookkeeping as well as the fundraising and project management for our new building which has been up for almost two years. I was born loving animals and have always had cats and dogs – I even had a horse for about six years. When I had the opportunity to volunteer at the shelter, I took it, and it changed my life. It was so satisfying and fulfilling,” Veley says.
She describes the shelter as primarily an animal control and adoption center where they hold contracts for animal control work which is required by New York State. Their contracts allow them to take in and assist stray animals from the contracted municipalities. They hold the animals for the legally required time and, if they aren’t reclaimed during that period, the shelter can offer the animals up for adoption. “We also shelter some dogs involved in dangerous dog court cases and help with rescues of animals in physical trouble. Pets left behind in homes vacated by their people for various reasons will come to the shelter.” Veley explains.
One area which has changed business for the Humane Society is the use of social media. “It’s really boosted adoptions to make people aware of what pets are available. Also, when strays or found animals come in, social media helps us to reunite the animals with their families. If the pet is not microchipped or doesn’t have a tag with a name and phone number, we rely heavily on social media. On Facebook, we make our posts shareable and that is often how owners find their pets.” Veley says they sometimes get rabbits and guinea pigs, and the adoption process is a simple one. The shelter manages nearly 1,200 adoptions every year.
Animal lovers who want to volunteer have the opportunity to apply and attend an orientation a few times during the year, but volunteers must be at least 18 years old to be on-site. The opportunities are all related to animal care – from feeding, to cleaning, to taking dogs on walks and doing laundry. Youngsters who want to volunteer are encouraged to conduct off-site fundraising events such as virtual dog walks or a bake sale to drive financial donations or supplies to the shelter. “Sometimes children will host a supply drive where they collect items from the Shelter’s Amazon wish list, the website or they’ll have a birthday party and ask people to donate items.”
The Humane Society of Westchester is located at 70 Portman Rd, New Rochelle. Visit them at www.humanesocietyofwestchester.org to learn more or call (914) 632-2925.
Jessica Reinmann founded 914Cares in 2014 with a friend of hers after working in the city at a very intense job. She realized she wasn’t being fulfilled and when she tried to volunteer at local organizations, she found it very challenging. “They would say, ‘Why don’t you come in with your religious organization or the Junior League or the PTA.’ I didn’t have connections to any of those things. We just wanted to volunteer so we started our own organization out of my house to do donation drives,” Reinmann says.
In 2018, 914Cares adopted a clothing bank that was being shut down by another organization. “We started as a clothing bank and [then] got funding for a baby bank. In February of 2020, we did a huge diaper drive, and then the pandemic happened, and non-profits shut down rather quickly. We had 40,000 diapers sitting there in our space and started reaching out to our community partners asking if they needed diapers. One thing led to another and by September of 2020 we were officially recognized as an official diaper bank by the National Diaper Bank Network,” Reinmann says.
That network has a sister organization called the Alliance for Period Supplies and so 914Cares quickly became a period bank through them, providing tampons and sanitary napkins. Reinmann added, “From there, we kept expanding and now have six programs – a baby bank, clothing bank, period project, hygiene bank, diaper bank as well as a literacy library that distributes books to our community partners.”
914Cares has two methods of distribution, both through about 80 community partners, as they don’t deal directly with the public since almost every non-profit they work with is a childcare center, healthcare center, school, shelter, or food pantry. Reinmann says, “Our partners tell us what their constituents need and then we give it to them. The clothing bank distributes about 4,000 bags of clothing a year, and in those bags is a week’s worth of clothing and books, and then they’re able to select if they need a period kit and hygiene kit which includes shampoo, conditioner, body soap, deodorant, hand soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste and hand sanitizer.” In addition, they host an essentials distribution monthly so their community partners can fill in a form and request diapers, books, and period products and get the items they need in a timely manner.
Volunteers can donate gently used clothing, books, and sneakers – everything else given out is new. One of their main points is that they offer a flexible schedule for volunteers. “We do ask them to come in for one day of training, but after that, they can sign up for as long or as short as they want. We accept donations 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” There are carts outside their door for those who want to make donations after hours. “As we head into back-to-school time, we would love donations of new or gently used girl’s and boy’s shoes and clothing in between newborn and men’s size 18.”
914Cares is located at 901 N Broadway, White Plains. Visit them at www.914cares.org for more information or call (914) 458-5220.