ELLSWORTH — Residents of Hancock County and beyond packed the parking lot of Eastward Plaza on Aug. 16 for back-to-school shopping.
But this wasn’t any back-to-school event: most of the items were free, or available for a $1 donation. Many of the clothes items were new with tags still on, and children could choose backpacks, pens, pencils, folders and books, among other items.
“Kids shouldn’t go without,” said Jacqueline Wycoff, director of the nonprofit Community Closet, which hosted the event. “The first day sets the tone for the whole year.”
On this bright Thursday afternoon, despite weeks of exhausting preparation, Wycoff was boundlessly energetic, flitting amongst the racks, fielding questions from parents and processing payments.
“I’ve had people I’ve never met showing up today,” said Wycoff, as a woman in flowered scrubs held up two Hannaford bags filled with food.
“For the food closet?” Wycoff asked.
The woman nodded. Wycoff pointed her to a shaded corner, where plastic shelves overflowed with donated food items.
“We’ve had people shopping online at Walmart and sending us boxes of food,” Wycoff said.
“It just keeps showing up in the mail. I think somebody needs their credit card taken away,” she said, laughing.
Wycoff said local businesses have been endlessly supportive.
“They all jumped in and said ‘What can we do to help?’”
Tiny Tikes Daycare co-hosted the event. Local restaurants donated food and water. The sweet smell of barbecue lingered in the air, courtesy of Big Cat’s Catering, which set up a food truck in the parking lot. Others dropped off boxes of school supplies and hygiene items.
“It’s not even possible to say” what it would have cost to put this on, Wycoff said. “We’re talking thousands of dollars.”
Wycoff estimated that over 300 people had shown up in the first half an hour.
“I stopped sharing the event on Facebook,” she said, because she got responses from 230 families in the first three days.
The Sullivan-born mother has been collecting items all year for the sale. There were bins of gently used clothing in the middle, ringed by racks of brand new pants, sweatshirts and blouses.
Books were provided by the Phillip Carter Reading Foundation, which Wycoff started in memory of her cousin Phillip Carter, “The Reading Bouncer,” who was killed in a crash in Dedham in 2014.
Anyone can shop at the Community Closet. There are no income limits. The first 10 items are free, and a $1 donation per item is requested after that, but exceptions are made when the need is great.
There is a special section for those who have lost possessions due to fire, and the Community Closet also works with organizations that serve the homeless, foster children, domestic violence victims and addicts.
“We’re helping people all over Maine,” Wycoff said. “Presque Isle, Machias, Calais,” ticking off the towns shoppers had come from, some of them hours away. “They just come down for the day.”
Wycoff took over the organization last year after learning about its impending closure on social media. She does not draw a salary, volunteering full time at the nonprofit, occasionally alongside her three children.
The organization has no paid staff, relying entirely on volunteers. Bills come in at around $1,650 per month, Wycoff said.
The rent went up recently, and Wycoff has conducted an online auction to help pay expenses and buy new items, such as underwear and hygiene products.
Community members turned out in droves to support the event.
“Instead of taking things to Goodwill, we drop it off here,” said Sue Harmon, an ex-Marine who runs Semper Fi Secret Santa, which distributes donated Christmas gifts to children around Hancock County.
“Jackie-she started this,” Harmon said. “She’s amazing.”
The Community Closet is open Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., as well as occasional Saturdays. Check the group’s Facebook page, facebook.com/communityclosetellsworth, to confirm, call 266-7242 or visit communityclosetellsworth.org.
The food shelves are outside and always open, and during the winter there are racks with hats, gloves and blankets outside as well.