For families in poverty, underwear is often last on the list. This Houston nonprofit helps fix that.

Source: Houston Chronicle

The Hebrew saying “tikkun olam” translates to “repair of the world,” and charges Jews with looking beyond their own welfare and working to improve the well-being of society as a whole.

Houstonian Rabbi Amy Weiss puts her own spin on the idea. “I like to say, ‘repairing the world — one tush at a time,’” she said.

It’s become the tagline of the nonprofit she founded in 2012, Undies for Everyone. The nonprofit is the only organization in the U.S. solely focused on addressing underwear insecurity for children in crisis.

Youth served by the group receive a pack of seven pairs of underwear, one for each day of the week. But the goal is much bigger than a small, unseen garment.

A study commissioned by J.C. Penney found that 46 percent of parents living in poverty say underwear is often the last item on their list to purchase for their children.

“They’re paying for food, rent, school supplies,” Weiss said. “But underwear is not one of those things.”

For more information, visit undiesforeveryone.org.

The study also found that 55 percent of children said they were too embarrassed to attend school without underwear.

For those who do still attend, not having underwear can make the school day harder, Weiss explained. Children worry others will notice. The lack of undies affects their self-esteem, which can have dire consequences down the road.

Underwear is simply a small problem for children in need of so much, Weiss said.

“But we’re able to fulfill this need on a large scale,” she said.

That need has only increased since COVID-19 — and Undies for Everyone has been able to extend its reach.

Now, the organization serves children in 15 U.S. cities across nine states. This year, 105,000 students will receive a seven-pack of new underwear.

During the pandemic, the organization also started hosting virtual drives. The nonprofit provides shopping lists, templates and social-media guides to organizations, which can then collect donations.

Undies for Everyone started when Weiss was searching for topics for her blog in 2008.

A social worker told her that children in poverty are in desperate need of socks and underwear — but those items are often forgotten when donations are made.

“I never thought about that,” Weiss said.

After writing about it, a few people donated money or a bag of underwear, which Weiss brought to Houston ISD nurses, who could distribute them as needed if a child had an accident.

“It just struck me,” said Weiss, who worried that if she didn’t tackle the task, no one would.

She decided to host back-to-school underwear drives in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

In 2012, Weiss received an email from a nurse at a low-income school asking for underwear. She loaded up a garbage bag with donations, slung it over her shoulder and marched to campus.

“I was like a Jewish Santa,” she recalled with a smile. “The nurse said, ‘Rabbi, thank goodness you’re here.’ There was a little girl who just had an accident, and here I was with underwear. That made her day.”

It convinced Weiss to make Undies for Everyone her full-time gig — and a registered nonprofit.

“That’s when I knew, ‘This is what I’m doing,’” Weiss said.

The first year, 9,000 pairs were delivered to HISD headquarters.

Each year, Weiss said, news of the donations spread by word of mouth. One school nurse told a friend at another school district.

“It went on and on,” Weiss said.

Barry Mandel, board chair and president of Discovery Green Conservancy, remembers clearly when Weiss first asked him to get involved.

“I was just amazed that there was a unique need being filled this way,” he said. “So many times, there’s duplication of services in the nonprofit world. This was different.”

Mandel jumped at the opportunity and has enjoyed being a part of the organization ever since.

“It’s just one thing we can take off a kid’s mind so they can go unencumbered to a learning environment,” he said. “Any obstacle we can get out of the way of to help them stay in the classroom just encourages them.”

By early August 2017, Undies for Everyone had donated 220,000 pairs.

“Then Hurricane Harvey happened,” Weiss said.

Suddenly, Undies for Everyone had to respond to a massive need — and donors around the world were willing to help.

More than 1.4 million pairs of underwear were delivered to men, women and children in the four months following the disaster. Then came Hurricanes Irma and Florence, followed by fires in California.

“We sent underwear after all of them,” Weiss said.

She hired three people to join her team in one week — and soon the nonprofit added Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin to its distribution list.

By the time COVID brought the world to a halt in 2020, Undies for Everyone was providing more than 500,000 pairs annually.

As shutdowns began, Weiss and director of finance and operations Julie Hayon found a supplier who could cut costs drastically. “And that meant we could expand,” Weiss said.

They decided to upgrade their distribution process to match.

Instead of sending donations to school nurses, Undies for Everyone began partnering with groups with distribution plans in place, including food banks, children’s hospital mobile units and Child Protective Services.

At the Houston Food Bank, Undies for Everyone works with the Backpack Buddy program, which provides students in need with a bag of food for weekends and other times away from the National School Lunch Program.

“We know that families struggling with food insecurity also need help with other resources,” said Christina Alley, senior manager of child programs at the Houston Food Bank.

Including a pack of underwear with the bag of food simply made sense — and the donations were immediately well received, she explained.

“Our schools have loved it from the very beginning,” Alley said.

Developing a new strategy and working with partners to distribute donations made it possible for Undies for Everyone to reach more children in a challenging time, Weiss explained.

“There are so many people living in financial crisis,” she said.

“It makes a difference in a kid’s day if they get a pair of undies when they have an accident, but that’s not enough,” she said. “Our price was down, and we wanted to do more. We have to do seven pairs. We needed to serve more kids.”

Now, Weiss said, the possibilities are endless.

“The more we do, the better,” she said. “I love getting up every day. On Sundays, it’s hard to sleep because I’m excited about going to work. There are so many opportunities — and the need is enormous. That’s what keeps me going.”

Lindsay Peyton is a Houston-based freelance writer.

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