It’s well documented that Philadelphia is a patchwork of neighborhoods, people, resources, and needs. An enduring challenge for nonprofits and the people who run them is figuring out how to bridge the gap between families who need assistance and those who have the desire and ability to help. Some people focus on the big picture and others make sure that attention is paid to each detail. A few talented leaders like Melanie London do both. She is able to clothe needy Philadelphians and help change lives precisely because she is willing to sweat the small stuff to help change lives. Her double vision makes Our Closet, where she serves as Program Director, a valuable resource for thousands in every part of the city.
Melanie did not start her professional career in the nonprofit sector. A native Philadelphian, after graduating from Temple University she made the trek north to New York to work in the entertainment industry. She enjoyed stints with EMI records and New Line Cinema, but ultimately decided she wanted to change professional focus and wanted to dedicate her time and talents to addressing community needs. London became Director of Communications at the Greater New York Councils of the Boy Scouts (separate from the national Boy Scouts of America). She was excited about the challenge of demonstrating the unique nature of NYC scouting and trumpeting the programs created for young people in need. Her community involvement was also a personal commitment. Melanie channeled her love of the Philadelphia Flyers to become a volunteer for Ice Hockey in Harlem and found great satisfaction as a tutor and mentor.
Ultimately, Melanie decided that her hometown was a better long-term fit to balance family and a career and moved back to Philadelphia in 2012. She served as the full-time program Director of Community Partnerships for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania for three years. It was clear that she found a home both in our community and the nonprofit world.
In 2017, she met with Jill Aschkenasy to learn more about Our Closet. The founder explained to London that her organization, established in response to a local crisis, provided clothing to needy Philadelphians. Our Closet’s mission is to meet a basic need for community members so that they can better focus on handling other stressors in their lives, such as securing a steady source of income or finding permanent housing solutions, with confidence. Originally Our Closet serviced shoppers primarily in West Philadelphia through donations and a single pop-up store. However, success created growing demand for clothing. Soon Our Closet had a burgeoning list of men, women, and children who urgently needed help. The organization needed professional staff and Melanie London’s interest was piqued. It was quickly apparent to both women that London’s skills were an excellent fit for a growing organization that wanted to maintain high standards of customer service and attention. In the years since, it’s safe to say that shopping has not been the same for thousands of Philadelphians.
Distributing clothing may seem simple, but the actual process of improving lives through access to goods and services is quite complex. Melanie believes that attention to detail can turn a shopping experience into a pathway to personal dignity and well-being. She makes sure that small things are taken care of, and the results may be huge. For example, patrons do not need to prove eligibility to obtain services. There is no burdensome, degrading paperwork. Instead, customers are greeted with smiles, tidy racks of seasonally appropriate, carefully selected clothing, mirrors, and a wide variety of everything a seasoned shopper might require. Volunteers even offer styling tips and try to accommodate fashion and size requests. The rationale behind the process is simple: every time a man or woman can make a choice, they can build confidence and enhance their sense of self-worth. The organization currently has thousands of satisfied customers. Each one of them becomes a bridge for other friends and neighbors to make a connection and gain access to Our Closet’s trove of merchandise.
Melanie reports that one of the organization’s newest and most important initiatives is their work with men and women reentering our community from incarceration. In cooperation with the Chester County Probation and Parole Office and Looking Forward Philadelphia (a service partnership between Jewish Educational and Vocational Services and Temple University), Our Closet ensures that appropriate clothing and footwear is available for men and women who are establishing new lives outside of prison. Volunteers scour their Springfield township warehouse to find specifically requested items. In an off-the-rack world, Our Closet aims to provide custom service to people who have not always received such careful attention.
Volunteers are reminded of the value of detail when they are trained to fold each shirt, every pair of pants, wrap each accessory, and load selections into a sturdy bag emblazoned with a distinctive logo. This shopping experience can be a pathway to dignity, self-respect, and self-determination. Each shopper is treated as respected customer.
Our Closet will distribute 1000 winter coats November 11th. For more information, or to learn about their fall pop-up schedule or how to donate merchandise, visit ourclosetpa.org.
My Philly Neighbor is a project done in collaboration with Broke In Philly, a news media initiative among 19 local news organizations to provide in-depth, nuanced and solutions-oriented reporting on the issues of poverty and the push for economic justice in Philadelphia.