Hope House becomes especially important in the cold-weather months, when no child in Whatcom County ever needs to lack warm clothing and shoes.
More than 20,000 low-income people in need of clothing and other household supplies can be helped in any given year by Hope House, which recently opened a new home at 207 Kentucky St. in Bellingham, behind Assumption Catholic Church.
It’s by far Whatcom County’s largest free clothing distribution center.
“We have more than 6,000 families listed in our database,” program manager Cheri Woolsey said. “By family, we mean we list anyone from a single person to a family of 12. We serve the entire county.”
A network of many thousands of local donors supports the 18-year-old Hope House, which since 2000 had been located in a home more than 100 years old on the same site as the sparkling new digs.
The new property was made possible by a grant from Assumption, money from Catholic Community Services of Western Washington and many private donors.
Whatcom County, which has a reputation for higher costs of living than many local salaries can support, also has a reputation for generous giving, as Woolsey, 64, will attest. She has lived in Bellingham for three decades following a move with her husband and four children from Massachusetts.
Hope House has specific rules: People sign up, and then can sign in once a month with legal identification. This foils scammers who might take too many clothes at one time in order to resell them.
Although Hope House can help homeless people, families of any size are the primary clients.
“Bellingham (and other local cities) has an excellent food bank, so we focus on other things,” Woolsey says, although noting that some food is offered. “Hope House is like one-stop shopping.”
These include items devoted to hygiene, paper products and baby diapers and wipes.
The primary goal, though, is clothing distribution. For children, shoes are always a primary need because they wear out so quickly.
“We distribute about 1,200 items per week and about 60,000 items each year. We‘re the ultimate recycling program,” says Woolsey, who was originally on another church committee in 1999 but switched to the Hope House founding group when she realized how interested she was.
“We had a lot of people at Assumption saying there must be something more we can do for the poor. Now the system is working great.”
Hope House is open Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 to 11 a.m. and Fridays from noon to 3 p.m. Donations are accepted during those hours as well.
“From 2000 to 2007, there was a gradual increase in the level of people in need in the county. But in 2008 (as the Great Recession unfolded) our need to serve people doubled,” she says. “It has never gone back (to pre-2008 levels). The housing (price) situation is horrendous and eats up everything (with the costs of rent, utilities and food). There are a lot of hurting people in the community,” says Woolsey, who earned a degree in human services from Western Washington University.
As she says of people who need help, “They know how to fish. They just can’t get to the shore.”