TORONTO — Back in the early ’90s, Ina Andre and Joan Clayton drove around town in their hatchback cars, picking up donations of new unsold clothing from retailers and manufacturers to give to people in need.
“We started on my dining room table, on her dining room table, in my basement, and a little in hers,” said Andre, noting that she hit upon the idea after seeing clothing displays being turned around for the change of seasons in a department store. “And I said, ‘I wonder what happens to all the seasonal clothes that are not being used.”’
The organization they founded, called Windfall, has grown by leaps and bounds, and now has an enormous warehouse serving 90 agencies, including homeless shelters, shelters for abused women, reception centres for new immigrants and job training programs.
Last year, it processed 265,000 pieces of donated new clothing worth an estimated $10 million.
And now, as the ranks of the unemployed grow due to layoffs in various sectors of the economy, the need is greater than ever.
The women, who had previously launched the food redistribution system Second Harvest, are both in their late 70s now, but Windfall executive director Helen Harakas says they still come around to help sometimes.
“They weren’t being paid a penny — this is something that they believed so strongly in and they wanted to make a difference in their community,” she said.
The pair were described as “real life heroines” as they were honoured Tuesday with one of five awards from Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. A $10,000 donation will go to Windfall, and the organization has become part of the setting for a story by Stephanie Bond in the new anthology “More Than Words, Volume 5.”
“Through Windfall, and Second Harvest before it, Joan and Ina have demonstrated true compassion for those who need it most,” said Donna Hayes, publisher and CEO of Harlequin.
The other winners are based in the United States, and include women who have advocated on behalf of people with eating disorders and allergies, battered women and children in hospital.
For her part, Andre was mostly grateful that Windfall was getting some attention and will “have the $10,000 so it can do a better job.”
When they launched, they didn’t get much ink, she said, and some people didn’t understand the idea of providing new clothes when a lot of second-hand clothes were available.
“And I think we always knew, because we had seen women in shelters, women who were going out for a job . . . all of us love to have new clothes. I always say that — there is a special feeling about putting something on which is just yours, not somebody else’s first.”
“We are always looking for the idea of self-esteem and dignity.”
Andre said it’s been more difficult to get men’s clothing, “and now that there’s so little manufacturing here, one of the toughest things to get is underwear.”
Harakas said they often hear back from those who have benefited.
“We’ve had several men walk in wearing a suit and saying, ‘I had this suit and you gave it to me, and I got the job.”’
Mothers who telephone are also grateful, especially for snowsuits, hats and mittens.
“Of all of the things that we do, the idea that there’s children in Toronto that are freezing in the winter is extremely unacceptable to us,” said Harakas. “So we do have a push, especially right now, to continue to grow our children’s programs — children’s clothing and snowsuits and boots are hard to get. There’s just not much out there available.”
In addition, they’ve started supplying backpacks and school supplies.
“We have 12,000 kids needing this, and we’ve only been able to do about 1,500,” she lamented.
Harakas said agency staff are reporting more people coming for help since the economic downturn.
“The other difference that we’re seeing is there is more stuff being donated to us because manufacturers and retailers are not able to sell as much because the economy is slower.”