The Clothes Closet — it’s the best deal in town.
Of course Dorothy Fonow may be a bit biased in saying that. Fonow is executive director of Western Fairfax Christian Ministries (WFCM), a non-profit that serves the working poor, unemployed, disabled, and elderly of Centreville, Chantilly, Clifton, and Western Fairfax County. WFCM relies on revenues from the Clothes Closet — a store that took in more than 14,000 bags of donations last year — to keep the Shepherd Center, the building which houses the Clothes Closet, the WFCM offices, and the organization’s other programs, up and running.
“I LOVE IT,” said Fonow. “Anyone can come in. It’s very nicely run, it’s clean, with very high-quality clothes — nothing stained or shabby.”
The Clothes Closet offers the items found in a traditional clothing store, such as shirts, shoes, suits, shorts, jeans, baby clothes, sweaters, and jackets. Some of the items are unused, and still wear their original price tags. The store sells small household items such as dining ware and appliances, and provides a children's section with books, board games, and puzzles for sale.
Fonow has just one problem with the Clothes Closet — most people don't that the store is for the general public. Though the store does provide free clothing to those in need, it sells a good portion of its clothing for ridiculously cheap prices — shirts for $2, and books for $.25, for example.
SINCE its inception in 1987, WFCM has provided help and assistance to households in Western Fairfax. "It’s hard to be poor in this area,” said Fonow. According to her, statistics dispel many myths about the needy. “A lot of people we serve are the working poor,” she said. “They are working, but not making enough to make it here.”
Only 36 percent of those that receive assistance from WFCM are unemployed. The number of African Americans receiving aid dropped from 61.72 percent last year to 48 percent this year, while the number of Caucasians receiving assistance rose from 21.81 percent last year to 33.5 percent this year. “There’s something going on,” said Fonow, who believes a demographic shift is taking place.
WFCM gave financial help — more than $150,000 — to more than 500 households last year. Of these households, 72 percent had, according to HUD guidelines, extremely low incomes, which ranges from earning less than $18,250 in a household of one to $34,450 in a household of eight.
The average family income in Fairfax County is $85,000, and the average monthly rent payment is $1,200.
“We’re really helping people that are almost falling off the edge,” said Fonow.
She believes there are definite benefits to living in Fairfax County though. “This is an incredibly affluent, generous community,” she said. “We do get a lot of donations, very good quality food and clothing and financial donations.”
LOCATED inside the Shepherd Center, behind the Clothes Closet, is WFCM’s Food Pantry, which offers low-income households the ability to shop in a grocery store-type setting for free. Last year, the Food Pantry provided 2,919 families with 13,290 bags of food.
Households schedule an appointment with WFCM, which allows just one appointment per month. The household then comes in during its scheduled time, and is allowed to actively shop and select its own items.
“It’s a matter of eating or not eating,” said a woman from London Town in Centreville who wishes to remain unnamed. She works for a temp service, and is currently placed in a part-time position at a doctor’s office. The woman lives with her daughter, who in turn has a 9-month-old boy. The woman’s daughter is unmarried and does not receive child care for her son. The Food Pantry provides food for all three. “This place makes a lot of difference,” she said.
“MANY OF these people are working two to three jobs at minimum wages, and that still doesn’t give them a living wage,” said Mary Anna Freeney, manager of the Food Pantry.
The Food Pantry gives away 1,000-1,200 cans of fruit a month, and more than 300 jars of spaghetti sauce, according to Freeney. She constantly fears that she will run out of food, especially when she sees the number of cans running low. Somehow, she said, things always come through.
“You have incredibly generous people that donate more than some people’s monthly food budgets,” said Freeney.
The Food Pantry receives perishable foods three times a week from the Giant Store at Union Mill in Clifton. Because of the recent low-carb diet craze, both Giant and Costco, another source of donations, are baking less breads. “This has really hurt me,” said Freeney. “The people I see can’t afford to go on a low-carb diet. If you’re borderline, peanut butter and jelly goes a longer way than other foods with no carbs.”
Families are limited to one jar of peanut butter per month right now, and one box of cereal, because Freeney can't replace them fast enough.
WFCM has a staff of 10 members to run the organization, and relies on more than 300 volunteers. The Clothes Closet has 56 volunteers to sort and manage donations. The Food Pantry has 50. WFCM is always looking for more volunteers. “We can always think of something to do with you,” said Fonow. The organization is desperate for bilingual volunteers, especially those who can speak Spanish.
The Clothes Closet and WFCM's offices can be found at 13981 Metro Tech Drive in Chantilly in the Sully Place shopping center. The store is open from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Donations may be dropped off during these hours of Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.