A tour through the 914Cares facility feels a bit like landing on a cloud where a group of earth angels are busy creating little miracles daily within a dizzying number of rooms with clearly marked shelves. Sooo many shelves. Sooo many helping hands. Santa’s elves have nothin’ on this crew!
This celebrated, and nearly all volunteer effort, a ‘basic essentials distribution center’, as its founder and CEO Jessica Reinmann proudly describes 914Cares, “distributes everything other than food.” 914Cares works closely with over 80 Westchester County programs to distribute items for them regularly, but as this not for profit has gradually evolved (it began in 2014), it also responds to calls from many different organizations and individuals seeking assistance for underserved populations.
“We have become known as the organization in the county that can get things to where they need to be immediately!” related Jessica, who together with with Marjorie Troob, Program Manager and Lisa Horten, Director of Communications and Development, took time out to acquaint the Inside Press with 914Cares.
Sometimes, the diversity of the calls can surprise even them. One time, for example, 914Cares received a phone call from a film crew who had to have their employees’ quarantine. “They had microwaves, coffee makers, and more…so we just got those items out really quickly!… We figured that we have these distribution possibilities…let’s put it all together!”
And to ‘put it all together’ 914Cares filled that void in a most monumental, year-round effort! Clothing essentials is probably still the ‘biggest’ item continuously sorted by volunteers. For a sense of the effort, consider that 914Cares distributes around 3,500 bags of clothing every year in its work with some 80 to 90 community partners each month. These partners arrive from every corner of the County to deliver the bags to the populations they serve.
914Cares volunteers in the meantime work to tailor the bags as much as possible to satisfy a child’s distinct wishes and needs. “Every bag is packed for the individual child. When an order comes in, they can say: “This is a Yankees fan” and the volunteers will look for Yankees items. Or we can have a girl that, let’s say hates pink, so we will make sure to not put in pink!”
Each bag contains a week’s worth of clothing. They also contain books and a ‘hygiene bag.’ Much thought goes into those too. “We have different hygiene bags for different age groups, because say, for example, ‘under 4s’ can’t have fluoride. “We are very thoughtful about what types of products we put in the bag….
The clothing is also ultimately something you would be happy for your own child to wear. “We do not give away anything with a specific school emblem or holiday images on it, anything with rips, stains holes, are rejected. We get shirts that will say “Little Brother” and we can’t give that to a child because we don’t know their situation.”
“A lot of our partners say we focus on dignity of the recipient.”
That level of dignity extends to books recipients find in the donated bags as well, as 914Cares packs and/or delivers about 50,000 books a year.” The 914Cares experienced librarian Miriam Minor is also a volunteer who trains library volunteers and manages ‘Avi’s Library,’ a children’s library housed inside 914Cares, too.
Books are packaged with clothing bags, by request of any organization: For example, 914Cares recently packed almost 8,000 books last year on behalf of the Ossining School District–after receiving their request for only 20! That effort led to each child receiving four books for their summer reading.
Most items are individual donations, but 914Cares also has evolving relationships with different clothing companies to receive overstock items, etc. They recently solidified “a strong relationship with Carters” as one example These relationships help enormously with meeting the greatest challenge in sorting the bags: making sure there are always enough sizes, and not an overabundance of any one size or too many items specific to one gender.
All Seasons Caring
The tour extended into a ‘seasonal’ area where 914Cares volunteers create bags whether it’s for back to school or for summer camp. “We fill about 200 camp bags a year, half sleep-away and half day,” said Jessica. “A lot of kids get scholarships to camp but they can’t go because they require a sleeping bag and certain sheets. The parents can’t afford that, so we have tried to play that role in the community, and make sure every kid that gets an opportunity to go to camps gets to. We separate the clothes between boys and girls. Then by size, then by item.”
It’s impressive but if it all also sounds daunting (it did to me!), my tour guides insist that it is all eminently doable thanks to a concept 914Cares promotes called “actionable generosity” that builds empathy along with passion and commitment among volunteers spanning different age groups. While most volunteers are parents with kids in school (they open daily at 10 a.m.), volunteers also include retired people and “tons of kids” after school.
Jessica encourages volunteers of every age to be ‘hands on’ to really learn what it means to not have clothes. She will especially tell kids to please NOT wear nice clothes “because you are going to work, pack diapers, hygiene supplies. There’s sweating and working here!”
These dedicated efforts ultimately help meet the profound needs of the most diverse families–from refugees to people coming out of the foster care system to fire victims and to those impacted by the Covid 19 pandemic.
Ever changing wish lists depend on the season or what supplies are on hand. “Our goal for every bag is to get a pair of sneakers which we don’t always meet, but it is our goal. Our goal for every winter bag is also a pair of boots,” she explained pointing out the long coat rack for the winter bags receiving a coat, a hat, and gloves. All socks and underwear are brand new. “As you can see our shoe bins depends on what we get, and what gets filled up.”
Her partner in passion for caring is Marjorie Troob, Program Manager, who manages the 914Cares Baby Bank. “It is a program which helps the County’s neediest babies–we work with six or seven organizations, along with high schools who contact us for help for teen parents. “For six months straight, each baby receives a month’s worth of diapers and wipes, clothing with updated sizing, and also, miraculously enough, essentials like car seats, strollers, bathtubs, portable high chairs, diaper cream, shampoo, bottle bibs, blankets, swaddles, diaper bags, and more.
To explain the volunteer mindset, Lisa Horten, Director of Communications and Development, noted: “For me, I like knowing I’m helping someone less fortunate and who has not had the experiences my kids have had. That gives me great pleasure. It’s even selfish for me.”
Jessica explained further: “I spent years in the private sector making rich people richer, and I just couldn’t do it anymore. We get all these quotes from social workers about how the bags have literally changed their lives. There’s no place I would rather be.”
Added Marjorie: “We get to do good every single day, I love being here, we have fun and yet we do good at the same time. Everyone is genuinely caring at the same time.”
Lisa offered that it’s also an opportunity to educate people. “Last night I was at a meeting in Pelham and people don’t realize that poverty is here in Westchester. I didn’t realize before I got here, either. It’s a quieter type of poverty than in Manhattan where you can see homeless people walking on the street.”
The positive feedback from recipients is gratifying too. “Last year, two sisters who got dresses had never had dresses in their lives!… They were holding hands in a picture, and you have never seen a bigger smile on kids.”
Ever growing, 914Cares is also on the move to a larger (still undisclosed) space from their current White Plains location. Individual donations are especially sought.
“Financial donations are amazing especially in the diaper and ‘period world’, said Jessica. “But we also encourage people to do diaper and clothing drives! We just got a call from Seven Bridges Middle School in Chappaqua, where they are going to do a sneaker drive for us,” she added. “All these things are helpful!”
Please visit 914cares.org
Inside Press Intern Adrianna Cmiel-Walsh assisted in the preparation of this article.