Filling a need: Resource closets provide basic supplies and food to struggling Clevelanders

As racism impacts the economic state of families in predominantly minority communities, access to even the most basic resources—such as food, cleaning supplies, and personal hygiene items—can become scarce or even difficult to obtain.

Far too many Americans, and Clevelanders living in one of the poorest cities in the country, struggle to make ends meet as a result of unemployment and underemployment related to racist policies.

That’s why so many area organizations are working day in and day out to meet the needs of people. Three Cleveland organizations are taking grassroots, creative approaches to supplying many people in need with basic resources.

Many of these organizations start with the city’s youngest residents—knowing children often take on responsibilities at an early age. Here is a look at three Cleveland groups working hard to fill what’s lacking.  

<span class="content-image-text">All of the closets have different resources based on what the young people in that community need</span>All of the closets have different resources based on what the young people in that community needKeeping it in the closet
MyCom, an organization working toward race equality and positive youth development, uses its thought-leadership, funding, advocacy, and network to redesign service delivery. The organization works with its partners to rethink infrastructure and create solutions to cyclical poverty, housing stability, lack of access to healthcare, poor access to quality education, and other barriers that have impacted Black and Brown lives.

One of the organization’s initiatives includes operating several resource closets across the city within Cleveland Public Library branches and community centers.

There are MyCom resource closets in the Central, Detroit-Shoreway, Glenville, Mt. Pleasant, and Old Brooklyn neighborhoods, as well as the inner ring suburbs of East Cleveland, Garfield Heights, Maple Heights and Warrensville Heights. The MyCom website also has a locator map to find the closest resource closet.

The resource closets stock a variety of goods accessible to the community and are run by MyCom coordinators and volunteers.

“When we were looking at what was going on during the pandemic and how to meet the needs of the families, we saw there was a gap when it came to basic supplies,” says Beverly Burks, former MyCom chief of staff.

The idea behind the resource closet is to help young people and families by providing products needed for everyday cleanliness, build confidence and empower those in need.

“We are also looking to have someone come in and talk about hygiene,” adds Burks. “We know that’s important.”

<span class="content-image-text">Brenda Pryor, MyCom Coordinator at the Cuyahoga County Public Library, Garfield Heights Branch</span>Brenda Pryor, MyCom Coordinator at the Cuyahoga County Public Library, Garfield Heights BranchMyCom handles everything from collecting supplies to assisting on days of distribution. Distribution is a grab-and-go model and the MyCom coordinator on site also delivers bags to some schools upon request by SayYes! coordinators in those buildings.

All of the closets have different resources based on what the young people in that community need, says Burks. Laundry and cleaning supplies, toothpaste, toothbrushes, lotion, soap, shampoo and conditioner, deodorant are among the items that can be found in the resource closets.

“Some young ladies have asked for feminine products,” says Burks.

Some closets have pre-packed bags and others allow the children to shop. Burks says Molina Healthcare and KeyBank have donated bags, while the Cleveland Foundation and Fowler Family Foundation have donated funds to cover the cost of the goods stocked in the closets. MyCom also received a recent donation for Gilmour Academy to support the resource closets.

Burks says traffic at the resource closets ebbs and flows, but is starting to pick back up this winter. “Parents will come and drop children off to shop,” she says.

With the arrival of winter, Burks says MyCom is starting to get requests for hats, gloves, and personal protection equipment (PPE). They often give requests for underwear.

“We try to stay away from clothes because then you’re getting into sizes and so forth,” Burks says. We’ll connect them with other resources who provide it.”

MyCom coordinators spread the word about the resource closets during the partner meetings. Each closet has specific operating times, typically one day a week for two to three hours.

Only school children ages six to 19 years old are allowed to shop at the resource closet.

“What we hope to foster in young people is that they can be the provider,” says Burks, “to make them cognizant of what their family needs to keep them safe.”

Burks says the students start to see themselves as the contributors and providers for their family.

Why subject children to this type of responsibility, some ask. Unfortunately, for several reasons, far too many of today’s children have to take on adult roles within their households. These children are referred to as a “parentified child.”

A parentified child is one who has taken on some or all of their parents’ responsibilities. Out of necessity, the child becomes the parent and the parent acts more like a child. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, about 1.4 million children and adolescents in the United States experience parentification. However, it is often overlooked or unrecognized.

The staff at MyCom recognizes this phenomenon in Cleveland.

All of the resource closets have an Amazon wish list page where anyone wanting to contribute can make donations. According to Burks, there is a continued need for additional donations.

“Parents will come and drop off two to three children, and we won't turn them away,” observes Burks. “We have some families who come every month.”

MyCom does have an intake form that gathers the student’s name, age, school, and gender to have a sense of the demographics they are serving.  

Johnny Robinson coordinates the MyCom resource closet at Friendly Inn Settlement House in the Central community and sees value in the program. “We have residents in the community who are in need,” he says.

<span class="content-image-text">Brittany Smith is the founder of Positively Empowering and Restoring Ladies Self Esteem (PEARLS)</span>Brittany Smith is the founder of Positively Empowering and Restoring Ladies Self Esteem (PEARLS)Positive reinforcement
Brittany Smith is the founder of Positively Empowering and Restoring Ladies Self Esteem (PEARLS). Smith started PEARLS in 2020 at Harvey Rice School in the Buckeye Shaker neighborhood, just before the pandemic, as a means to create space for young girls to come together, discuss issues and be their authentic self. The group would do activities like yoga in the park and host vision board parties.

“Being a Black girl from the City of Cleveland and working in the schools, I saw the conflict they have with one another,” says Smith.

Then, in 2021, Smith saw the need to open a physical space—a resource closet—that provides items to help build the girls’ self-esteem. Initially, Smith paid for a storefront boutique on Fleet Avenue but couldn’t sustain it. That’s when Northwest Neighborhoods Community Development Corporation gave her space on West 65th Street in the Detroit Shoreway community. PEARLS operates this closet in partnership with MyCOM.

Today, The PEARLS closets are also located in Albert Bushnell Hart Elementary School in Broadway-Slavic Village. and New Tech West High School in West Park.

“The schools have been amazing,” Smith says.

<span class="content-image-text">Smith and her team sort through the clothes to ensure there are no damages or stains</span>Smith and her team sort through the clothes to ensure there are no damages or stainsIn the PEARLS resource closets, girls can shop for items that make them feel more confident. They carry shoes, clothes, hygiene products, jewelry, and purses. Smith and her team sort through the clothes to ensure there are no damages or stains. They also look for trendy pieces. Hygiene items, especially feminine products, are the biggest need, she says.

Initially, Smith focused on items for girls but received so many donations for females of all ages that she expanded to also serve women. Clothes for females as young as one year old are available. PEARLS doesn’t accept business casual attire because Smith says it typically sits too long.

Smith uses some of the monetary donations to purchase underwear and clothing donations come from the community, while Neighbor Up, CareSource, Cleveland Foundation, and The Starbucks Foundation have all provided financial support.

The PEARLS community closets are completely free to shoppers and open every weekend except the last weekend of the month. The closets in the schools are open once a week and teachers can access the closet in cases of emergency. Smith also hosts pop-up closets at community events.

“We’ve been able to serve 1,500 [girls and women] since 2021,” says Smith who uses social media to spread the word.

“We definitely make sure it’s a win/win for everybody, for the community,” she says. The girls who participate in PEARLS programming work the closets. Many of the women who use the closet help out as well. “Some people come to shop and then become volunteers,”

<span class="content-image-text">UCC Food Coordinator, Sara Jay</span>UCC Food Coordinator, Sara JayA place of worship and needs fulfillment
The West Park United Church of Christ (UCC) food pantry started with a small six-foot cabinet, back in 2018 when Pastor Jason Thompson, who came to the church in 2017, asked parishioners to bring food as part of their offering on communion Sunday.

The congregation served about five families back then.

A year later, church members saw that the need had grown a little greater. That’s when they turned a small prayer room into a pantry. Then in 2020, the pandemic hit, when they served 500 families in March and April of that year.

At that point, they converted an alternative chapel, previously used for educational programming, into the pantry they provide meals from today. 

“God kept providing. The community kept providing,” says Thompson. “We got grant money and established a partnership with The [Greater Cleveland] Food Bank.”

It reached a point where West Park UCC started to deliver meals to those who were unable to physically pick up the meals from the pantry. Even Cleveland Ward 17 Councilperson Charles Slife and West Park Kamm’s Neighborhood Development stepped in to help, says Thompson.

In late 2020, West Park UCC received a CARES grant to assist with covering the food pantry which costs approximately $27,000 per year to operate.

The numbers have stabilized, they are currently serving about 225 families each month. In 2021, the church served an estimated 75,000 meals and is on pace to exceed that by the end of this year.

Both members of the church and people from the community volunteer at the pantry. 

The West Park food pantry issues enough food to last a family 14 days. It is a “choice pantry,” meaning people can select what they wish to receive. “We have anything you’ll find at a grocery store,” says Thompson.

Nonperishables, meat, vegetables, and fruit as well as toiletries, feminine hygiene products, pet food, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and paper towels are available. Through community partnerships, they’ve distributed the Thanksgiving dinner essentials for the last three years.

“We gave out 44 turkey’s this year,” boasts Thompson.

<span class="content-image-text">The West Park food pantry issues enough food to last a family 14 days</span>The West Park food pantry issues enough food to last a family 14 daysThompson says they don’t track demographics but suspects they serve the people who live within a three- to five-mile radius of the church, with about 80%t of European descent and the remaining Black and Latinx. Pantry volunteers also started to see a large number of Afghanistan refugees after President Joe Biden pulled troops from that country, ending the war.

“We learned about their culture, and it was a beautiful experience,” says Thompson.

The pantry has a halal section to meet Muslim dietary restrictions. 

“I see [this pantry] as a staple of the community,” says Thompson. “We’re not just a church that sits at Kamm’s Corner. We participate in the community and see ourselves as a partner.”

The church recently hired a part-time coordinator and there is a constant effort to fund the food pantry, Thompson explains. “It has been an unanticipated but welcomed undertaking,” he says. Donations are always welcomed.

This project is part of Connecting the Dots between Race and Health, a project of Ideastream Public Media that investigates how racism contributes to poor health outcomes in the Cleveland area and uncovers what local institutions are doing to tear down the structural barriers to good health. The project is funded by the Dr. Donald J. Goodman and Ruth Weber Goodman Philanthropic Fund of The Cleveland Foundation.

This is the fourth and final story in a FreshWater series exploring the declaration that racism is a public health crisis. Check out our other stories in the Connecting the Dots series, A place to call home: Cleveland's Black community is hit hardest in affordable housing searchA place to call home: The quest to create safe, affordable housing options,  Food Justice: Many Clevelanders struggle for healthy, affordable food, and A rising tide: Cleveland residents invest in making their neighborhoods better.

Rhonda Crowder
Rhonda Crowder

About the Author: Rhonda Crowder

Rhonda Crowder worked as a general assignment reporter for the Call and Post Newspaper for 11 years and has served as associate publisher of "Who's Who in Black Cleveland" since 2013. She currently runs a creative services agency, is VP of print for the Greater Cleveland Association of Black Journalists, and coordinates Hough Reads literacy initiative. Her debut novel is titled "Riddles."