After moving back to her hometown of Keene about five years ago, Stacey Spencer heard there were children in some schools who needed clothes.
So she went looking. She would ask friends with kids if they had anything in the right sizes, or go through her own closet. It grew from there.
“If you put it out there that you have clothes, more and more people are interested in them and can use them,” she said.
Today, Spencer runs The Community Closet out of her home in Keene, taking in donations and giving them out to people in need. From clothes for school-aged children, she expanded the range of sizes and items. Now, she provides clothing for newborns, adults and everyone in between, as well as toys, winter jackets, food, formula and baby accessories.
“Times are really tough, and if families can get a wardrobe [for the] change of seasons for their child or children, that may mean they can put food on the table or pay an oil bill, etc.,” she said. “… People are extremely grateful. I have some people that have been coming here for years.”
The Community Closet is a volunteer project for Spencer, 43, who works as a nursing supervisor at Heywood Hospital in Gardner, Mass., three nights a week.
“She does so much for people,” said her neighbor Christie Wright. “She will do anything for anyone who needs help.”
A helping hand
Spencer keeps her stock of donated items at her house and a couple storage areas. People mostly find her through social media, though she also works with social service providers who refer clients to her.
“How it works is, somebody requests a size of clothing that they may need, and then I put everything that I have in that size in my entryway,” she said. The parent can then come and look through it all, selecting whatever’s right for their child.
“Instead of just handing them a pile of clothes that the child may not like, or may not fit, they can actually come and pick out what they want,” Spencer said.
She doesn’t have set hours, but is pretty flexible about arranging visits in her free time. “If someone were to say, ‘I’m out of this, can I come tomorrow?’ ” she said, “there’s a really good chance they could come tomorrow and get what they needed.”
Meanwhile, she also receives donations. She takes out stained or ripped clothing, and then sorts items by size and gender.
Spencer estimated that she averages about 35 “interactions” per week — “That could be accepting a donation or giving out a donation,” she said.
Wright, who works in The Sentinel’s advertising department, sometimes helps Spencer organize donations. She recalled how she first learned about the community closet.
“I would forever see people pulling up in their cars, leaving tubs of stuff, leaving toys, leaving just bags, and I asked her what that was about,” she said. “She said, ‘Oh, you know, it’s people donating stuff for my community closet.’ And then she started telling me about it, and I just thought that was so fantastic.”
Though Spencer isn’t the only local resource for people in need, Wright says she fills a key role.
“She’s a lot more immediate,” Wright said. “You know, a new mother calls and says, ‘I’ve got a newborn, a preemie, I don’t have anything for the baby,’ and she’s right on it. She’s putting everything together that that mom might possibly need.”
Wright added that Spencer has helped find small appliances for people transitioning to new living situations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the holidays, Spencer does a little extra. She gave out “everything but the turkey” food baskets this Thanksgiving, and for Christmas, organizes volunteers who sign up to sponsor particular children, buying items on their wish lists.
Spencer finds helping others in the community rewarding. More than 30 families received food this past Thanksgiving, and she sees how grateful they are.
“I know a lot of those families, they’ve been coming here for years, for clothing, and I know they wouldn’t have had the same Thanksgiving if that wasn’t available to them,” she said.
Serving in multiple ways
Spencer said she’s wanted to be a nurse since she was little.
“Just to be able to take care of people — and science is fascinating,” she said. “The way the body works and the things that happen.”
She attended nursing school in her 20s, and has worked in the field for about 15 years.
Working at a hospital through the pandemic has been difficult.
“It’s been terrible,” she said. “It’s really sad. COVID is really making a huge impact on everybody. It’s just really sad for families and nurses, you know. The things they’re seeing and going through every shift is terrible.”
But she’s kept serving the local community in her spare time.
When she’s at work, she’s focused on work, she said. “Then I try to shut that off when I’m home. … There are people here in my community that need help, so then that becomes my focus on my days off.”
And running The Community Closet can bring a sense of balance.
“It’s kind of a reliever, sometimes, for me, because I’m actually able to help people and help kids in the community and so forth, and it’s very, very different from nursing,” she said. “It’s something I can see the rewards of. And right now, in the times of COVID, we don’t always see that.”
At her house, items for the community closet occupy two six-by-eight rooms, space in the basement and a whole garage bay. She said it’s sometimes “a lot” for her family — her husband, Ian, and their children, Carter, 15, and Ian, 12.
“There’s often people coming and going through my entryway,” she said, not to mention the space taken up by donations and boxes and bags of unsorted clothes lying around.
“My family sacrifices a lot for the community as well. It can be a lot on them,” she said, but added that they are all “very supportive.”
Spencer said she hopes to find more space to expand and help more people. Through a GoFundMe she started in 2020, she raised $1,375 in donations toward that.
She’s thought about renting a storefront where people could come and shop (for free), but has concerns about maintaining it financially. On Friday, she posted on the community closet’s Facebook page that she had found a storage unit, calling it a “huge opportunity to move stuff out of my house AND be able to help more people!!”
She’ll still do pickups at her home, as well as continuing to store some items there.
“The community just continues to support what I’m doing, and more and more people need the clothing,” she said. “And so I see this just continuing to circle around, over and over again.”
Those looking to connect with Spencer’s community closet can find her on Facebook via her personal page or that of The Community Closet: https://www.facebook.com/staceyscommunitycloset.