On a Tuesday afternoon Darlene Sierak and Jennifer Pickel sort through a black cardboard donation bin full of plastic bags of gently used clothing. Men’s sweatshirts, women’s blouses, jeans and khakis – each article is neatly folded and placed on a shelf labeled by gender and size.
The room in which they work is a small space – a former copy room too snug for an office – tucked away in the Patient Support Services suite at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor, but impressively organized. A row of winter coats hangs on the rack against the back wall. Built-in shelves house men’s and women’s shoes, and drawers contain personal hygiene kits complete with toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, tissue, body lotion and razors.
“It’s nice that it’s set up so that you can go in and grab something,” Jennifer said in reference to this “clothes closet” where chaplains, case managers and social workers come to pick up clothing and other necessities for patients in need.
But a “closet” is a bit of a misnomer for the space Jennifer and Darlene converted six months ago and the project that’s become a labor of love.
Last summer, Acute Care Flow operations manager Sarah Brown was faced with a conundrum – how to organize the piles of unsorted donations – albeit welcome – that were growing in the social work department offices. The two clothes closets on the hospital floors were brimming too, and they needed more space.
“We had so much,” she chuckled.
That’s when discharge planning assistants Jennifer and Darlene offered to help by moving the donations into its current space, sorting them by type and size and labeling each bin for easy access.
“They organized it so nicely with women’s and men’s clothes. It’s so easy to walk in and find exactly what you need,” Sarah said.
The clothes closet allows patients in need – especially those who are homeless or being discharged into shelters – to leave St. Joe’s with dignity. Jennifer and Darlene observed that many patients have only the clothes they wore to the hospital, which are often soiled and sometimes unsuitable to wear at the time of discharge. Case managers or spiritual care workers are able to access the clothes closet to pick up a fresh set of clothing or two.
And when it comes to helping patients discharge with dignity, Jennifer said, the personal hygiene kits she and Darlene pack into individual Ziploc bags are just as important as the clothing.
“Speaking from experience, when you’re in that situation and you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to stay warm, and where you’re going to sleep that night, the last thing you’re going to think of is, ‘How am I going to stay clean.'”
Neither Jennifer nor Darlene said they expected they would be involved in collecting, sorting or distributing donations as discharge planning assistants. Their “official” job title involves coordinating continuity of care for patients when it’s time for them to leave the hospital – communicating with medical staff, nurses and doctors. But this extra work, they said, is rewarding.
“It feels good to give back to people that need a little help,” Jennifer said.
“We do anything and everything for everybody. We’re team players,” Darlene said.
As word spreads about the clothes closet, donations trickle in from St. Joe’s colleagues. In fact, the management team recently collected six bins of new personal hygiene items during its professional development conference.
On Jennifer and Darlene’s wish list for the clothes closet this winter are new socks and underwear – a year-round necessity in high demand – winter gloves and warm blankets that can be sent home with patients. Donations can be dropped off Monday through Friday in Lower Level Suite 77.
For now, the dynamic duo is happy with their single clothes closet, but has hopes to expand the service across the hospital.
“I’d like to see all the clothes closets on all the floors over-filled. I’d like to be able to provide for anyone who comes so that we wouldn’t need to turn everyone away,” Jennifer said.