Volunteer folding clothes in garden
(Photo: iStock/via Getty Images)

Beacons of Civilization: On Kindness in a Small Town

We fill up the soul of communities by giving what we can. It's not charity, but simply being a good neighbor.

Civilization has been described as “the slow process of learning to be kind.” This past summer and early fall, while I stood with peace and justice companions on the Greenfield Commons in Greenfield Massachusetts, I witnessed a pervasive culture of kindness.

Karen Boyden, with the assistance of some family and friends, folded and laid out free shoes and summer clothes and, later, fall sweaters, pants and heavier shoes on a table and blanket on the Commons. A sign welcomed all passing by to help themselves to “Dippy’s Closet.” Some who chose clothing and shoes, with the advice of friends, left with smiles; others were discreet, not wanting to draw attention to themselves.

Dippy's Closet, I learned from Karen, is a grassroots volunteer driven outreach that provides free clothing for men, women, and children with the specific goal “to attract homeless folks and individual and families who are struggling financially to purchase quality clothing.” She was first inspired to share her father's wardrobe when he unexpectedly passed in Sept of 2022; and she began donating his wardrobe to men living in a recovery home in Greenfield. “It was a great way to rechannel the pain of losing my dad into helping others,” especially seeing “so many people living on the streets of Greenfield.”

Karen estimates that, in their 9 outreaches on the Commons from June to early November, about 50 people have visited weekly and left with clothing. She has widened the circle of donors, including co-workers at the Valley Medical Group Easthampton and the Giving Circle Thrift Shop of South Deerfield.

Asked what this act of kindness for other fellow humans means for her, she replied “I want to show the folks who are struggling that we do notice, that we do care and they are valued. It is my hope that our little clothing mission might inspire others to serve the homeless. It is not that hard and so incredibly rewarding....”

Karen mentioned being inspired by the Stone Soup Café, seeing their efforts to serve folks in need. And I noticed that some who stopped by Pippy’s Closet then headed to Stone Soup Café, one long block away, for a gourmet, healthy lunch, offered each Saturday from noon to 1:30.

This pay-what-you can community cafe, whose intent is “to build a culture of belonging,” has grown since its opening in 2010 from serving 25 meals to 600 meals each week. Their Community Free Store, an emergency curbside food pantry, was created at the prompting of their guests during the onset of the pandemic. It provides between 80-110 households with groceries, produce and personal care items at no charge to them. In 2022 Stone Soup created a tuition-free 12-week Culinary Institute program career training to people seeking a new career path, especially those who are seeking employment after a period of incarceration or recovery from addiction. Those accepted into the program leave with a Food Handlers License, a ServSafe Certificate in Kitchen Management, job skills, practicum experience, and references for securing work in the food sector of Franklin County.

Explaining her intense commitment, co-director and chef, Kirsten Levitt said; “My life’s passion is to service…humans are hardwired for service.” Head of Volunteers, Sarah Hilliard, is motivated by “a lot of love. No human being should be without food.”

Nearby in the Second Congregational Church, Gloria Matlock and volunteer tutors work with up to 20 children, to augment their chances to thrive as they grow in the innovative Twice As Smart program founded by Matlock in 2018. Her lofty four-fold mission is to:

  • Provide after school academic instruction to augment children’s confidence in reading, writing, and mathematics leading to a love of learning.
  • Cultivate social and listening skills.
  • Encourage each child to develop their unique “voice” and to find self-expression through art and music.
  • Expose children to resources, role models, and experiences that expand their educational and career possibilities.

Some Twice As Smart students are immigrants and many live in public housing.

This model of holistic education is clearing the students’ obstacle-laden path to higher education, jobs and a deep sense of self, a cause to which artist, musician, and former teacher Gloria Matlock has committed her life.

Are these programs using charity to remedy social injustice, as some might claim? Jane Addams would disagree. In 1892, this eminent social reformer explained that Hull House, her settlement house in a poor precinct of Chicago, was not a charity. Its purpose — and, for Addams, a central obligation of being a citizen — was to help America’s less fortunate make the most of themselves. “To call this effort [charity]…is to underestimate the duties of good citizenship.”

I would add that, with one-half of Americans either poor or a medical emergency away from economic ruin, these programs in our midst and the thousands like them across our country are beacons of civilization in a nation that pumps the world full of military weapons, while its soul empties from within.

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