A fifth of the UK population now lives in poverty: that's 14 million people, including working-age adults, children and pensioners. We've seen the stories about the increased usage of food banks – with Trussell Trust citing 41,000 three-day packages being handed out in 2010 compared to 1.2 million in 2017 – but another problem, sitting under the radar, is the need for clothing. We sat down with Louise Cooke, founder and CEO of Sharewear, to find out more about her story, and what the organisation is doing to help both local and international communities...
I met Louise after a Wednesday afternoon Sharewear session at The Beacon in Arnold; a former Baptist church on Birchfield Road. In a break-out room with comfy sofas and the teaspoons clinking on our mugs, I looked into the still chapel room and its mounds of categorised clothes slotted between the pews.
Just moments ago, the building was buzzing with clients and volunteers working together to use a lifeline. Sharewear provides a practical facility for those in Nottingham who need it: people who've had their benefits sanctioned, people in low-paid work, people in debt, the homeless community, asylum seekers and refugees, people with mental health issues, ex-offenders, victims of crime and, more specifically, of domestic violence and abuse. “We’re getting an increasing amount of women through,” says Louise. “Women who've fled other parts of the country and have pulled up in Nottingham with nothing but the clothes they’re standing up in.
Clients are referred to the clothing scheme through schools, doctors, the police, social services, as well as smaller organisations like the Women's Centre and debt advice centres. The service is available to local people, but Sharewear are also the main clothes supplier for the British Red Cross' emergency response unit for fire and flood, for the whole of central England.
“It’s evolved into something we’d never have thought it would,” says Louise. “Our corporate motto is 'Combatting crisis and creating change' because we believe that with the right clothes, you’re empowering people to transform their own lives.”
Louise was a languages teacher, and in the last eighteen months has been working for the Catholic church as a social justice outreach worker: “It's about getting Catholics to put their faith into action,” she explains. “Not to set things up from scratch, but to join in with what's already happening.”
Before Sharewear started, back in November of 2012, Louise travelled to São Paulo in Brazil as a volunteer for the charity CAFOD, to spend two weeks in the favelas. “What I saw there blew my mind,” says Louise. “Because those people had got nothing, but what they did have, they were sharing with everybody.” Two days before Louise was set to return to the UK, she fell down a flight of stairs, and doctors were amazed that she hadn't broken her back. “I returned with this whole idea of wanting to do something like what I’d seen in Brazil, but also thinking 'I’ve had a really lucky escape, I could be in a wheelchair now’.“
Just a few weeks later, Louise had a major anaphylactic reaction to hair dye, and was saved by a paramedic with adrenalin. “Being a person of faith, I began to think that somebody was trying to tell me something,” explains Louise. At the time, her son was volunteering at Bulwell and Bestwood Foodbank at the weekends, and had noticed the increased need for clothes from families using the service.
After fellow members of her church in Bulwell rallied around in support, plans to start collating clothes and contacting referral agents began. Then, in April 2013, Louise was diagnosed with breast cancer. “That was the third thing that had happened in five months,” says Louise. “It just turned everything on its head, but I thought 'If they’ve caught this early enough and there’s a good outcome, someone is definitely trying to tell me something.’ That’s the way I took it. I had a lumpectomy and radiotherapy, and it was a less aggressive type of tumour, so it was much better than it could have been.”
In March 2014, when Louise had had some time to recover, Sharewear opened its doors. Since then, the founder has extended and increased the arms of the organisation, as well as upholding high standards to maintain the dignity of those in need. “Our quality rule is: if we wouldn't wear it ourselves or wouldn’t want to see a member of our family in it, we don’t use it,” says Louise. “Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it has to have something wrong with it; we’re very strict.” Two things happen to damaged clothes: they go to Savanna Rags in Mansfield, with the money raised reimbursing volunteers’ bus fare, and they’re recycled into delivery bags for outreach work.
Sharewear is entirely self-funded, and in recent years received a donation to buy a van to deliver clothing everywhere from the Refugee Forum, to YMCA, and all the smaller organisations in between. “The van has really taken us to the next level,” says Louise. “We've clothed 3,800 people this year, and two-thirds of those have been by outreach.”
Beyond Nottingham, Sharewear supported the Grenfell victims after Louise saw footage of people donating clothes. “Through experience, I knew that when those donations were processed, a lot of them weren’t going to be suitable; either not appropriate or not good enough quality,” says Louise. “A charity called Human Aid was supporting twenty families from Grenfell and I found out that exact thing had happened; they’d processed all the donations and realised they still needed various things. We supplied what they needed; two local councillors gave us the money to hire a bigger van, so we took it down to London.”
After the hurricanes in Dominica, Sharewear responded to an international group who were working with the national police aid convoy, and in 2015, they responded to the Nepal earthquake; working with Chilwell Army Barracks to get baby clothes to the country.
“Every time we do something like that, you can’t even tell that we’ve done it,” says Louise. “If you look at the stock levels, it’s like somebody has taken a teaspoon of clothes out there.” The stock levels are enormous. As we delved a little deeper into the piles in the chapel, I couldn’t believe the sheer amount of items available.
“It can be really overwhelming to find what you’re looking for; a bit daunting,” says Louise. “So we assign a volunteer to help people look for clothes, and often the person will talk to that volunteer while they’re looking.
“Sharewear has become a place for people to get volunteering opportunities who might struggle elsewhere, and that’s become almost equally as important as the clothing support. Saying yes, and giving people a chance, has been the catalyst for change in so many lives. That’s really powerful.”
After winning awards from the local councils, receiving a Points of Light letter from Theresa May, and being featured in The Guardian, Louise remains pragmatic about the situation and is leaving her paid work to spend more time on Sharewear: “Speaking from my own point of view rather than the organisation’s, our current government are letting the voluntary sector run the country. They’re decimating the public sector, and letting the private sector do what they want. They think that by writing to volunteers and to say that what we’re doing is great somehow makes it all okay.
“It’s just become accepted that people need food banks in this country, it’s become a part of our lives. But people still aren’t talking about the clothing aspect of poverty. We’ve done some informal research, and it does appear that we’re the only scheme of this kind in the country. If people need help in Nottingham, what’s everyone else doing about their clothing support?”
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