Columbia thrift store provides free clothes to those in need through referral program
It’s referral day at The Wardrobe.
A line wraps around the white-painted building, seated on the corner of Eighth Street and Park Avenue, as people wait for the thrift store to open
Clothes leave on racks and enter in blue plastic bags. Visitors try on shirts, test shoes and experiment with outfit combinations.
The Wardrobe is a local Columbia thrift store where anyone can find clothes at a reasonable price. But Tuesdays are specifically for people with referrals, which allow them to get free clothing once a month.
Volunteers are also busy checking people in.
As a non-profit, The Wardrobe depends on volunteers to keep the organization going. One volunteer, Georgia Morehouse, has been a part of its mission since it opened in 1970.
“My whole wardrobe is The Wardrobe,” Morehouse said.
She was one of the “church ladies” who began volunteering at the store, wanting to find a way to help the community.
Now, at 89, she continues to volunteer. Her favorite part is hanging up clothes and seeing people find a piece that brings them joy.
Morehouse said referrals on Tuesdays are an important part of The Wardrobe’s mission.
“But the school-aged kids especially because it can be so demeaning not to have the same kind of clothes other people wear at school,” Morehouse said.
Evette Nissen, The Wardrobe’s board chair, said about 100 people use their referrals every week.
“You can get a referral from local agencies here in town,” Nissen said. “Also, most of the school counselors or homeschool communicators at the schools will get the referral forms for the parents or guardians.”
The Voluntary Action Center (VAC) is one of those local partners. It helps low-income families with basic and emergency needs, like clothing.
“A lot of families really struggle with what they’re able to spend their money on,” Christy Low, the services coordinator at VAC, said. “I think when they can go and find some clothing for their kids to go to school that maybe don’t have holes or rips or tears so that they know their kids aren’t being judged by the way they look or what they’re wearing is really helpful to a lot of families.”
Lowe said the VAC gave out more than 600 referrals for 1,700 people last year – to families and other folks in need, such as those experiencing homelessness.
“It feels like all we did was send a piece of paper, but we may help that person get a pair of socks and shoes for their feet if they're experiencing homelessness and worried about frostbite and being out in the cold,” Lowe said.
To get a referral from the VAC, all people have to do is call to see if they’re qualified. Qualifications include living in Boone County and having a gross monthly income at or below 200% of the federal poverty guideline. That’s about $60,000 a year for a family of four.
She said if people just need a referral for clothing, the VAC can often get the referral sent to The Wardrobe the same day.
For Nissen, it’s about helping people at the times they might need it.
“Not only people that have nothing, but people that maybe just don’t have a job right now,” she said. “They can come in and get what they need at that point in time.”
All of the clothing and items are donated by the community. The Wardrobe accepts donations on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Proceeds go toward providing school children with new shoes.
In 2022, The Wardrobe gave out more than 2,000 shoe vouchers to kids in need.
Nissen said to get a shoe voucher, families must first get a referral from a local service agency, school counselor or principal.
“Our referral clients that have children in grades K through 12 in Boone County Public Schools can purchase a shoe coupon for $5. Then they take that coupon to Shoe Carnival, where they can buy a pair of shoes up to $40,” Nissen said.
Vouchers can be purchased by parents and guardians on referral Tuesdays at The Wardrobe. To redeem a voucher, the child must be present at Shoe Carnival. A voucher can be redeemed every six months.