TONICA — “Who wants to go to work?” the pastor asked as he waved 10 small envelopes.
Duane Foote raised his hand on that day, and approximately two years later, the fruits of his labors can be seen not only throughout his church, but throughout the Illinois Valley.
Pastor Mark Nowakowski, of Tonica’s United Methodist Church, had based his sermon that fateful day on the Gospel of Matthew and the Parable of the Talents.
For those unaware of the finer details of the parable, talents were a unit of currency in biblical times. It’s a story of three servants left in stewardship of their master’s finances while he was away for an extended period.
When the master returns, two of the servants had put the money to work and gave the master their profits and were rewarded. The servant who buried the money and did nothing beneficial with it was cast out and punished.
“Each of those envelopes contained $50, and those taking them were free to use the money however they saw fit,” Foote said as he surveyed what’s known as the Closet of Hope, a free clothing outlet based in the church.
“I’m not sure what everyone else did with theirs, but this is what I did with mine,” he said.
Foote used the original $50 to complete a job for another church. That work not only got him paid, but referrals for other jobs as well.
“Before I knew it, we had $1,000, and I had to begin stepping back from those jobs so we could begin work on this,” he said.
Foote, with regular help from his wife, Lois, began collecting donations while also taking advantage of the closure of some local department stores to buy their clothing racks, and he also cleverly made some of his own.
“We started with just some clothes and a few toys, but now we’ve grown to also include furniture and many other things a home needs,” Lois said.
While the Closet of Hope started out occupying a small area, it’s since grown to include much of the church. The free clothing outlet is open from 2 to 8 p.m. on each Wednesday.
The Footes and approximately 10 volunteers arrive several hours early on Wednesdays to move the clothing racks out of storage and into other rooms, hallways and the church’s main areas.
Compared to the thrift stores of the valley, the Closet of Hope is every bit their equal in regards to their selection of items.
The items are also color-coded to help volunteers sort and cycle them so nothing sits unused for too long.
“We started off having to ask people for donations and for the things they were unable to sell at their garage sales, but now they’re calling us,” Lois said.
They’ve also built an informal network in order to work and trade items throughout the Illinois Valley and all of Bureau, Putnam and LaSalle counties, and even beyond.
Help has also been received from local food pantries, police departments and several churches. While not a food pantry, the Closet of Hope occasionally does have some food items.
“We don’t charge for anything,” Lois said. “If you need something, you’re welcome to it, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what color your skin is, what church you go to, or even if you go to church. We’re here to help people who need it, plain and simple.”
They’ve also received a generous donation of a shed, which is used to store surplus donations, and they use their own truck and trailer to collect donations and even make deliveries.
More than one family has benefited from a trailer full of furniture being delivered by the Closet of Hope.
“Some of these homes have so little, and seeing how these families appreciate the things so many of us take for granted is heartwarming and why we do this,” Lois said.
Duane was a plant superintendent for a factory in Mendota for more than 40 years before retiring, and Lois worked for several years with the Salvation Army. Her time there taught her valuable lessons she now uses to help run their own charity.
“People ask us why we’re only open one day a week, but we’re spending those other six days getting ready,” Lois said.
Most of the other volunteers are fellow retirees, although a few teens also help.
“Everyone helps as they’re able, and with the way we’ve been growing, we could always use more volunteers,” Duane said.
While there’s no charge for any item selected, Lois does count the items and keep a simple log, so they can show how useful the Closet of Hope is to the community.
“During our first night, we had a few people and gave away about 40 or 50 things. Now we regularly get 50 to 70 people and give away approximately 1,400 items a week. In approximately two years, we’ve given away a total of almost 80,000 items,” Duane said.
They now wish to spread knowledge of the Closet of Hope to the surrounding communities of the Illinois Valley and to let residents know they are welcome to visit.
“It’s about helping people. There are so many in need. We wish more people would take advantage of what we’re offering,” Duane said.
The Closet of Hope is in the United Methodist Church at 423 E. Wauponis St. in Tonica. Hours are from 2 to 8 p.m. each Wednesday. For more information or to schedule a donation or a donation pickup of gently used clothing, shoes, books or household items, call 815-257-3264 or visit their Facebook page.
As an entirely non-profit organization, monetary donations to help with expenses are also greatly appreciated.