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Living Supplies Closet does its part for ‘people living off the edge’

WESTERLY — Sometimes, people understand the limitations of the Living Supplies Closet only when he talks about the toilet paper, said Walter Pawelkiewicz. The Living Supplies Closet, which gives its clients one of every item in its inventory every 60 days, gives out two rolls of toilet paper.

“It’s a supply and demand issue,” said Pawelkiewicz, a volunteer. “We only have so many items.”

The Living Supplies Closet keeps an inventory of 18 non-food items, including shampoo, razors, and laundry detergent, for people in need. It’s housed in a small room in the basement of Christ Church on Elm Street with two sets of shelves and a desk. Two days a week, the center is open for clients who are certified by another agency, such as the WARM Center or the Jonnycake Center. It serves residents of Rhode Island and Connecticut from Charlestown to Groton, but the bulk of the clients come from Westerly and Pawcatuck.

With one bar of soap and one roll of paper towels per family every 60 days, the Closet obviously cannot supply all the needs of each client. Another volunteer, Rebecca Cherenzia, the parish secretary, said: “That’s because our funds have been limited. There have been times when the shelves were empty, and we had to turn people away.”

The Living Supplies Closet operated on a $20,800 shopping budget in 2013. It also received donations of items for its shelves, and volunteer labor from 33 people.

Although the Closet’s shopping budget has increased — it was $20,000 per year in 2012 and 2011 — the number of people who qualify for its services has also risen. Last year it had 1,619 clients, representing 4,848 family members. In 2011, there were 1,542 clients representing 3,716 family members, and in 2012, 1,670 clients received services for 4,001 family members.

As a member of the Basic Needs Network, the Closet coordinates with other local agencies. Clients who receive services every other month can also receive services from the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center in the alternate month. Vicki Anderson, executive director of the neighborhood center, sits on the Closet’s board of directors.

The Closet is benefiting this year from Grace Gagnon, a Westerly High School senior who is gathering donations as part of her senior project.

Gagnon and her mother, Rachel Gagnon, have volunteered at the agency for a number of years. Grace sent more than 100 letters to Westerly businesses and organizations asking for donations, and said she’s pleased with their generous response.

One of the donors was the Westerly Lions Club, which gave $1,500. “It’s good to see the younger generation get involved,” said Bob Hatfield, president of the club.

The Living Supplies Closet was started 23 years ago by Natalie Lawton of Christ Church. At the time, the only donors were parishioners. Now coordinated by volunteer Susan Dowd, the Closet became an independent nonprofit enterprise three years ago. Cherenzia said that now that it’s a separate agency in its own right, there are more donors, including local businesses and civic organizations. The Closet also qualifies for grants.

Volunteers and donations of money and items are always welcome. For more information, contact Cherenzia at 401-596-0197.

“These are people living off the edge,” Pawelkiewicz said of the Closet’s clients. “They’re just trying to get by on what they have.”

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