By Linda Chion
The Empty Closet on the grounds of Riverview United Methodist Church (RUMC) has been a fantastic outreach for families of children in foster care throughout Hillsborough County and beyond.
As the latest of three clothes and supplies contests opened under the auspices of West Florida Foster Care Services, the Empty Closet at RUMC is a boutique built with love, stocked with donations and managed by church and agency volunteers.
“Since we opened April, we’re seeing 400 families a month and it’s been incredible,” said Janet Rinaldi, director of family advocacy for the West Florida organization, one of three licensing agencies for foster parents in Hillsborough County. “Our area has one of the highest demographics of foster families in the state, so an Empty Closet in south Hillsborough County was very much needed.”
Gary Floyd, as chairman of Riverview United’s board of trustees, said it was a no-brainer to turn an empty church building into an Empty Closet, given the church’s commitment to community service.
“That’s what churches are supposed to do,” Floyd said at the Empty Closet’s grand opening on April 9. “Our mission is to in life is to help those less fortunate than we are.”
A back-to-school celebration, held on the church grounds on July 30, brought an even greater awareness to the Empty Closet in Riverview, with school supplies, uniforms, backpacks and lunch boxes having been distributed, along with ice cream cones.
The boutique featured new and very gently used clothes; shoes and socks; diapers, baby food and other nursery essentials; hygiene materials; and all types of gear, including strollers, car seats and high chairs.
Also on the premises are two Empty Closet bins for donation drop-offs throughout the day.
“New clothes, new socks and underwear, new shoes, those are the top needs,” Rinaldi said. “Obviously, formula is a need, because supplies with the ongoing shortage are not yet back to normal, so we do rely heavily on donors for that as well.”
Toward that end, financial donations are “desperately needed,” Rinaldi said, which allows Empty Closet volunteers to purchase supplies that are running low at any point in time, and especially so in these inflationary times, where budgets are tight and foster parents need even greater support.
The overarching aim of Empty Closet is to offer that support and to keep retention strong.
“Statistics show us that 50 percent of licensed foster homes close after their first year because they burn out, and especially so when there’s an incredible lack of support,” Rinaldi said. “We decided, rather than recruit, train, license and then they leave, let’s add support services, and Empty Closest is one piece of that.”
The Empty Closet at Riverview United Methodist Church is located at 8002 U.S. Hwy. 301 S. For Empty Closet hours, donation needs, other locations and information about becoming a foster parent and the need countywide, visit West Florida Foster Care Services at www.wcffs.org.