Walk through the doors of St. Anthony's clothing shop in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, and you'll see a typical apparel store. Bright clothing adorns racks in an array of color and pattern. Shoppers and their kids strum through shirts, pants and shoes — choosing items with a mix of excitement and precision. These pants for school. This shirt for basketball practice. They try them on in fitting rooms, and take home their favorite pieces.
Stay a little longer, though, and you'll see that this store isn't so typical. Customers are referred to as "guests." Many of the shoppers are known by their first names.
Oh, and there is no cash register.
Located in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood, St. Anthony's provides critical life services to those in need. The non-profit was originally founded as a dining hall in 1950, when Franciscan friars recognized the need for a community eating space after seeing people devouring scraps on sidewalk curbs. Today, the non-profit has evolved to include a health clinic, a residential addiction recovery program, a tech lab where guests can learn new job skills, and even a program that provides free clothing.
"We can all relate to what it's like to have a fresh set of clothes on," said David Watterson, who manages the free clothing program at St. Anthony's. "There's a mental, psychic transformation that happens when you walk out of a store with new clothing. There's a boost of confidence, and we believe that if people feel good, they will have the opportunity to do good and do well."
Visitors at St. Anthony's — referred to as "guests" as part of a Franciscan tradition to welcome people into your home — are all from low-income backgrounds. From there, though, they represent a group varied in age, race, religion, language, ability, orientation and just about any other way to define diversity. The program is open to anyone who decides they need this service.
A number of the guests also include families of parents and children.
"One of our biggest days of the year is our back-to-school shopping event, where parents bring their kids in to get backpacks with school supplies and clothes for the new school year," Watterson said. "We all know what it's like to show up in the cafeteria on the first day of school, trying to find new friends and trying to fit in. We want to offer kids the confidence that comes with new clothes and being able to stay in step with their peers."
"We also want to help fill in the gap for low-income parents struggling on their own," Watterson continued. "It costs $700 to clothe a child for a year. If you have three kids, that's more than $2,000. That's a lot of money, and a need that we can help people meet."
At this year's back-to-school event, the excitement is palpable. Kids rush up to racks, flipping through until they stop — their smiles wide — on a chosen garment. "Mom, look at this one!" Volunteers act as personal stylists, making sure the fit, material, color and every little detail is just right.
A number of the pieces in the store are new Old Navy clothes, donated by Gap Inc. from the brand's clothing samples. Each week, the Old Navy team packages up anywhere between 50 and 100 boxes — with anywhere between 100 and 150 clothing items in them — to fill the racks at St. Anthony's.
The partnership is hardly new. (In fact, it's hard to pin down how long ago it began. Trying to find the genesis of the partnership is a scavenger hunt — perhaps this person will know? Well, it's been going on longer than she's been here, so that's definitely more than 15 years. Was it back in the '90s? No, it definitely went further back than that. Let's ask Dolores.)
Regardless of when it started, the St. Anthony's donation truck still pulls up to Old Navy's headquarters in San Francisco's Mission Bay neighborhood at least once a month. It's packed with the season's products, ready to be shipped and stocked for neighbors a few blocks away, who will start chapters of their lives — whether big or small — in the clothes.
"This past April a guest came in — she's a single mother, confined to a wheelchair — and brought in her daughter who had acceptance letters to 17 top universities," Watterson said. "The daughter accepted a scholarship to Harvard for low-income students, and was here to find clothes for her freshman orientation in Cambridge the next week."
"This person is about to embark on this huge journey — meeting with professors, administrators, and other students," Watterson said. "And she is choosing to present herself in these clothes. It speaks volumes that she can begin her new life with confidence and present her best self in new clothes."