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'This place is for everyone': Ballard clothes pantry going strong

Ronna Faaborg
Ames Tribune
Jeriann McLaughlin, founder of the Ballard Community Clothes Pantry, puts clothes in the racks at the pantry Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Huxley, Iowa.

It was Halloween of 1994 and Jeriann McLaughlin was in line at a major thrift store, buying a dress for her Little Bo Peep costume.

In line ahead of her was a family with four children, buying winter coats and finding they didn’t have enough money to cover the total cost. There was a language barrier adding to the confusion of the transaction.

McLaughlin stepped in.

“I asked the cashier, ‘Can’t you just let them have these things and accept the money they have?’ She said she didn’t have the authority to do that,” said McLaughlin. “I had just brought in a donation of some clothing myself and it really bothered me to see these people who were in need and couldn’t afford to buy these donated items.”

She discreetly added some cash to the transaction, and the family left with all the coats they needed.

Jeriann McLaughlin, founder, and owner of Ballard Clothes Pantry puts clothes in the racks at the pantry Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Huxley, Iowa.

But the incident stuck with McLaughlin, and when she complained to her husband, Dean, about it later that day he told her she should do something about it.

So she did do something about it. And more than 25 years later, the Ballard Community Clothes Pantry in Huxley still takes clothing donations, as well as other items, and gives it all away for free — no questions asked.

“It’s become a staple around here,” McLaughlin said of the clothing pantry. “It was started back in ’94. In 2000, we moved into Ballard Creek retirement center, so we’re in a nice place now.”

Jeriann McLaughlin, founder of the Ballard Clothes Community Pantry, packs foods in a box at her clothes pantry Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Huxley, Iowa.

Ballard Creek, which is located along Highway 69 in north Huxley, offers independent and assisted living residences and is part of the Madrid Home Communities.

Ballard Creek had unused garage spaces behind its building and in 2000 contacted the Ballard school district to see if it had a need for extra space. The superintendent at the time knew that McLaughlin was looking for a new space for the clothes pantry she’d founded.

“We were operating out of the old fire station, which was less than desirable in those days,” she said. “We shared the space with the fire trucks. It was cold in the winter.

“We had these big round racks that had been donated by Target, and every time the trucks came in, we had to roll them out of the way. It was free and it was the only thing in town, but it was challenging.”

Ballard Creek donated use of the garage space, and McLaughlin obtained a grant for about $10,000 to help pay for the renovation, which helped fund the removal of some walls and the installation of new drywall.

“Then we had everything donated — furnace, air conditioning,” she said. “I spent a good year going around getting donations from Home Depot and places like that.

Because the clothes pantry is attached to Ballard Creek’s building, it pays the utility bills for the philanthropic organization.

Every month, a different church takes responsibility for manning the pantry with volunteers.

“They have the same month every year — they have for 20 years,” McLaughlin said. “I have all the churches in all four towns (Huxley, Cambridge, Slater and Sheldahl), the RSVP program takes a month, St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church in Ames takes a month and the Catholic church I attend in Elkhart takes a month.

“So it’s really nice. I really don’t have to be there during open hours as much anymore.”

But McLaughlin still stays busy with good deeds: She delivers day-old sandwiches donated by a local convenience store to people in need in the community. She finds good homes for furniture donated to the pantry, like a full set of nursery furniture she recently matched up with a young, single mom.

McLaughlin and the clothes pantry are also gearing up for the annual Wishing Tree project, which matches donors with local families in need.

The annual Wishing Tree project begins Wednesday, Nov. 25, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Ballard families can come in a fill out a wish list for their children for Christmas, according to a news release. Community members can come at the same time and take a list off the tree to fulfill wishes. The project concludes Saturday, Dec. 5, which will be the last day to fill out a wish list and the last day to take a wish list.

Gifts need to be brought to the clothing pantry by Dec. 6. Families may pick up their gifts Dec. 9 and Dec. 12. 

The clothes pantry is open three days a week, the same schedule it’s had since it opened. Pantry hours are: Wednesday 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to noon, Sunday 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. or by appointment.

On those days, people can pick up or drop off items.

McLaughlin is cognizant of making things as safe as possible during the pandemic, limiting the number of people allowed in to shop at any one time, encouraging social distancing and the use of face masks.

She also has a box built by local Boy Scouts where she quarantines donated clothing for at least 24 hours. Once that box is full, they stop taking donations for the day and encourage people to bring their donations back the next day.

“It’s gone really, really well,” McLaughlin said.

The pandemic has increased the importance of a place like the Ballard Community Clothes Pantry, McLaughlin said. Need has increased as unemployment has risen. And people spending more time in their homes has led to many sorting their belongings and ending up with items to donate.

With many major thrift stores closed during the pandemic, McLaughlin felt the need to find a way to reopen as safely as possible after a couple months of being closed last spring.

McLaughlin retired from the Ballard school district this summer. One of the many projects she was involved with at Ballard was the food pantry, which couldn’t be located at the school after the pandemic hit. So she added that to the Ballard Clothes Pantry.

“People keep donating food, so I keep giving it away,” she said with a laugh.

“I guess I’m OK with whatever the need is,” McLaughlin said. “There is another food pantry in town, but the hours are different, and I think there’s a need for both.”

There are no income requirements for picking up clothing, food or household items from the Ballard clothes pantry. There is no cost for any of the items.

McLaughlin encourages everyone to participate in the pantry. “Even if you’re here to donate clothing, pick a couple things and take them home with you,” she said. “This place is for everyone.”