Rhonda Ellis had three big bags of hats, gloves and socks crowding her office at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, plus more donations filling the back of her car, a tiny blue Honda Fit.
Then came Alphonso Emery, the director of diversity and human resources at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, who offered boxes and bags of shoes and shirts, followed by promises of more warm clothing from co-workers across the South Lake Union campus.
Two weeks before the start of a holiday drive to benefit Teen Feed, a Seattle group that provides meals and supplies to homeless teens and young adults, Ellis was already amazed at the outpouring of generosity.
“It’s been really nice,” said Ellis, an occupational health nurse at Fred Hutch who has started to distribute some of the donations a little early. “They’ve been calling me Santa Claus.”
Still, that’s only the beginning.
The formal drive, coordinated by the Hutch’s Clinical Research Division, will run from Dec. 1 to 19. Ellis hopes to collect enough new socks, hats, gloves and hand warmers to supply the nearly 800 young people reached each year by the nonprofit, which was founded in 1987.
Those are among the most popular items provided to the clients – referred to by Teen Feed as “guests” – who take advantage of nightly meals, basic supplies and connection to support and services.
Socks, in particular, are a hot commodity for the young people who spend the winter tramping the wet, cold streets in the University District, Auburn and Rainier Beach areas that Teen Feed serves.
“Our youth are on their feet all day and will travel 20 miles a day on foot,” said Christopher Pearson, meal program coordinator for the agency’s University District site. “They have to take really good care of their feet.”
A daily change of socks can help prevent trench foot, a medical condition that occurs when feet are wet for long periods of time. The feet become numb, turn gray or white and start to swell – and smell – from damage to the skin, blood vessels and nerves. Left untreated, trench foot can lead to gangrene and possible amputation.
“If you don’t have clean socks, that’s one of the first things that can happen,” said Pearson, 33, who was homeless himself as a young person, living in a van in Seattle for four years, from ages 19 to 23.
As it stands now, each client is limited to one pair of socks because supplies are so scarce, Ellis said.
Warm hats and gloves are also essential – and in large enough sizes to be useful to the typical Teen Feed client. The agency serves young people ages 13 to 25, but most of the clients are adults in their early 20s, slightly more men than women.
Ellis, who is coordinating the Fred Hutch drive, was the agency’s featured volunteer in November. She’s been an advocate with Teen Feed for more than a year, typically showing up at weekly dinners to talk – and to listen.
“It’s just been a perfect way for me to give back to the community,” said Ellis, who has worked at Fred Hutch for 16 years. “I sit down and have a meal and chat. I may learn that this one is pregnant and this one has a toothache.”
Gathering for dinner every Friday night has helped her understand a growing problem, both locally and nationally. At least one in every 30 children in the U.S. is homeless, according to the report “America’s Youngest Outcasts” issued this month by the National Center on Family Homelessness.
Just recently, Ellis had dinner with a young woman in her late teens or early 20s whose parents kicked her out when they learned she was lesbian. Other young people are on the streets because they come from families struggling with drug addiction, mental illness or physical abuse, she said.
Helping to provide necessities that make daily life a little easier for young people with no permanent place to live is important, Ellis said. She also wants to raise greater awareness of the Teen Feed program, which has an annual budget of nearly $400,000, according to federal tax documents. The agency will distribute the items as they’re needed, which likely means immediately.
People wishing to donate to the Teen Feed drive can leave the items starting Dec. 1 in bins in the elevator bays of the Thomas and Fairview buildings on the Fred Hutch campus. Members of the general public who want to help can access a collection bin placed in the east elevator bay on the first floor of the Thomas Building.
For the young clients – or guests – having basics like clean, dry clothing can make a profound difference in their physical and mental state. Pearson wasn’t a client of Teen Feed when he was homeless, but he remembers the impact of similar kindness.
“For me, it just meant comfort and sanity. I could feel better not being dirty all the time,” he said. “The more you sit in things that are dirty, the worse you feel. But when things are clean and they smell good, it lifts your spirits a little bit.”
JoNel Aleccia is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. From 2008 to 2014, she was a national health reporter for NBC News and msnbc.com. Before that, she was a reporter, editor and columnist for more than two decades at newspapers in the Northwest.