INDIANAPOLIS — Nestled away in a nondescript office park on the east side of Indianapolis, volunteers dig through mounds of shoes, shirts and pajamas, stowing away outfit after outfit in small tote bags.
Lambswear Inc., a small nonprofit serving children without adequate access to clothing, has operated out of the building for just a few months, but the organization has come a long way since its beginning in 2013, said co-founder Heidi Taylor.
What began as a grassroots effort among Taylor, of McCordsville, and several members of her church to round up support for a clothing drive has grown into a full-fledged nonprofit. Last year, the organization, which is fueled entirely by volunteers, contributed a week’s worth of clothing to nearly 2,000 children, from newborns to 12-year-olds.
Now in its fourth year, the organization is hoping to serve 2,500 in 2016, a far cry from the 370 it helped during that first year in 2013.
Story continues below gallery
This month, volunteers are reaching out to local schools, ministries and philanthropic organizations in search of support for the “Undie 500,” an annual effort to collect gently used or new underwear for both boys and girls.
Underwear is the most requested garment, Taylor said, and it’s hard to keep up with demand. The organization is hoping to collect 3,500 pairs this year, all of which would be distributed over the course of the year.
Lambswear doesn’t require any documentation — proof of income or unemployment — from those it serves, and that’s intentional, Taylor said.
If the organization were to require it, Taylor fears families who truly need the service would slip through the cracks.
Though her family of six is well afloat now, Taylor knows the burden that financial hardship can cause. During the economic recession, her husband, Steve, was laid off and didn’t find work for a year and a half.
The family’s only source of income during that period came from unemployment checks, and times were tight; affording clothing for growing children became especially tough, and the family’s earnings put them just beyond the threshold to qualify for assistance from many assistance services and nonprofits, she said.
“We made our bills, survived and came out the other side, but not everyone does,” Taylor said.
That experience provided the inspiration for Lambswear, which has helped thousands of families across central Indiana, from Sheridan to Greenwood, Taylor said.
Taylor and Katie Caplinger, who know one another from Outlook Christian Church in McCordsville, started collecting children’s clothing donations in early 2013, asking members of the congregation and neighbors to donate.
Initially, the plan was to serve exclusively foster children, Taylor said, but that mission quickly grew to include all families in need.
Along the way, Lambswear built a board of directors to guide the organization and increase its reach.
Families who receive support from the organization receive seven outfits and four pairs of underwear and socks.
Since the organization is volunteer-operated, it’s difficult to keep consistent hours at the warehouse, which is near the intersection of Pendleton Pike and Sunnyside Road, Taylor said.
Taylor and other members of the board meet with families who contact them for help by appointment at the warehouse.
Often, those who need assistance don’t have transportation, and volunteers have driven an hour or more to hand-deliver clothes.
Heather Worl of McCordsville, one of 11 board members, said people tend to open up and share their stories when they receive donations.
The stories are often heart-wrenching, providing details of struggles with joblessness and domestic violence, Worl said.
But many times, volunteers get to witness the elation that something as simple as a bag of clean clothes can bring a family, Worl said.
During a visit to a family’s home on the west side of Indianapolis last year, the children were so thrilled with their new clothes that they insisted Taylor stick around to see them try everything on, she said.
“They wanted to model everything and pose for me,” she said with a laugh. “It was like they were putting on a fashion show.”
Members of the board present to churches, youth groups, scouting troops and other community organizations in search of volunteer support and donations — but also to let people know the organization exists, Taylor said.
Volunteers seek clothing and monetary donations from friends, coworkers and community members. Many of the volunteers keep a bag outside their front door, asking neighbors to drop by unwanted hand-me-downs and other clothes at their convenience.
Katie Williams, formerly a social worker at McCordsville Elementary School, turned to Lambswear several times when students showed up to school in the dead of winter without a coat.
Taylor showed up at the school after receiving the call with several winter jackets in hand, she said.
Though many local churches and community organizations collect clothing donations for those in need, availability is often scarce, Williams said.
With a force of motivated volunteers and a steady supply of donations, Lambswear stands out, she said.
Lambswear provides a lot of support to residents in Greenfield and Fortville, but Taylor said she hopes to expand to help anyone in need.
Lambswear Inc. offers clothing to children, from newborn to age 12. The nonprofit organization, which takes donations of new and gently used clothing, depends on volunteers and community donations. For more information on getting involved, or if your family needs assistance, call 317-721-1664 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.