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‘God is throwing grace all over this’

Volunteers at Giving the Basics sort and package items such as razors, combs, shampoo, deodorant and feminine products — things that can’t be bought with food stamps and aren’t readily available at emergency assistance centers. The items are donated to clients all across that Kansas City metro area.

by Elaine Garrison
Special to The Leaven

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Visitors to the Giving the Basics warehouse see well-organized bins, barrels and carts. Teresa Hamilton sees containers brimming with dignity and success for the needy.

The charity’s executive director and founder — and Queen of the Holy Rosary, Wea, parishioner — was inspired in what she says was a catalyzing moment in her life, like the turning on of a proverbial spiritual light bulb.

It started off simply enough: A family in need came to the attention of Hamilton and a small group of people. The family had food, but no hygiene products. After helping with those and other cleanliness needs, one family member regained her dignity and got a job.

That became the formula for Giving the Basics.

“Yay!” thought Hamilton, when she realized how much the products had helped that family. “Yay, God!”

But the idea, born Nov. 11, 2011, in Hamilton’s garage, seemed to take on a life of its own.  

Now, Giving the Basics occupies about 18,000 square feet in Dean’s Downtown Underground on W. 31st St. near the Coleman Highlands neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri. The Dean family has been instrumental in helping the charity grow, charging the nonprofit much-reduced rent.

“All this got lost in food,” said Hamilton, as she gestured toward carts, shelves and bins of shampoo, laundry detergent and packages of incontinence supplies. “Food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) take care of food, but they can’t be used for any of this.”

Giving the Basics serves pantries and Catholic Charities organizations on both sides of the state line. This year to date, Giving has logged 577,423 items at the 65 pantries served.

At Metro Lutheran Ministry in Kansas City, Missouri, Kimberlye Bernard oversees the food pantry.

“We have been partners with Giving the Basics for almost two years now,” she said. “It has been a huge asset to our pantry. Clients appreciate that we offer personal items, which are very difficult for clients to come by.”

Each month, the ministry logs on to Giving and orders toothbrushes, feminine products, toilet paper and soap.  

“We are so fortunate to have Giving the Basics as part of our team at Center School District,” said Kelly Wachel, a spokeswoman for the district in Kansas City, Missouri.

The charity “works hand in hand with our social workers to make sure that our kids have what they need to feel dignified and ready to be at school,” she added. “We are grateful for their partnership.”

Likewise, Kim Davis at Amethyst Place in Kansas City, Missouri, said, “Our partnership greatly reduced the stress on our families caused by the scarcity of basic supplies. . . . Our clients can focus on their recovery and mental health.”

Giving the Basics is so successful that 44 states want to know how to run a similar program. Asked how she learned the skill set that has made her program work, Hamilton chuckles.

“I have 12 kids,” she said simply.

Keeping her family organized prepared her for the swarm of obstacles — large and small — the charity has encountered and mostly overcome.

“Systems. It’s systems,” she said.

And grace.

“God is throwing grace all over this,” she added.

Hamilton runs the charity with a board of directors and a handful of employees. Hamilton’s team includes Curé of Ars parishioner Michele Orpin; Kelley Scharosch, a member of Queen of the Holy Rosary Parish in Wea; and Heidi Whitehall. (Giving the Basics could use a warehouse employee should someone want to donate a salary, said Hamilton.)

A structured existence

Things became official when Hamilton and her husband Bob Hamilton (of the Overland Park-based heating, air conditioning and plumbing company that bears his name) sat down with their attorney. He warned Teresa Hamilton that what she wanted to do was a lot of work and would take way too much time and, initially, a lot of money.

Needless to say, she wasn’t discouraged.

“Never tell a woman ‘no’ when God said ‘go,’” Hamilton likes to say.

She was born in Wichita and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, where she went to Visitation Grade School and later St. Teresa’s Academy. She has been married to Bob for 36 years.

“I’ve been incredibly blessed,” she said. “It’s an awesome life.”

Hamilton went into Giving the Basics with specific ideas about how this burgeoning charity would operate. For example, she made sure that no one in need would ever be required to work for or pay for the products provided. Simplicity was important, as was steering the group’s efforts toward its specific goals.

Hamilton has seen God’s hand in the many doors that have opened for Giving the Basics. A few times, the answers to her prayers have been different from what she thought they would be.

But she knew God would lead the way. And he did one day when, once again, a phone call played a pivotal role in the charity’s future.

“A teacher . . . from Center (School District) wanted to know if [they] could help,” recalled Hamilton.

That teacher and others had realized that children whose families didn’t have hygiene products and laundry detergent would be bullied at school because of body odor, dirty hair or dirty clothes. Those students shrank from social contact, or just did not go to school. The district was trying to help, but more was needed.

A program to serve schools was born. Year to date, Giving the Basics has logged 261,544 products for schools. One hundred eighty-six schools were served in 2015.

About 220,000 people had access to personal hygiene items in 2015 from Giving the Basics, according to the organization’s website.

Looking to the future

Hamilton is quick to emphasize that she encourages her children to work at Giving the Basics, but doesn’t require it.

“I’m careful not to talk about it too much at home,” she said.

And she believes there will be a national organization that spreads the Giving the Basics model someday.

“I want people to be freed from shame in every city,” she said.

But she also says she will only be that organization’s leader if it fits within her boundaries of being a wife and mother first.

“I’m at a point in my life where I don’t need conclusions,” she said.

She leaves the conclusions to God.

How to help

  • Organize a “Dignity Drive,” which collects products that go to the Giving the Basics warehouse. Groups and businesses participating can help package the products, or not.
  • Monetary gifts help buy specific items not commonly donated.
  • Manufacturers’ product donations are greatly needed, but individual donations are equally welcome.
  • Text SOAP to 27722 to make a $10 donation to purchase products for those in need.
  • Text DIGNITY to 27722 to follow Giving the Basics on social media.
  • Needed: Bar soap, deodorant, feminine products, laundry detergent, lotion, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, toothbrushes, body wash, combs, dish soap, trash bags, storage bags, household cleaner, dental floss, diapers, incontinence products, wipes, razors, shaving cream, tissues and toilet paper.
    • Mailing address: Giving the Basics, 3150 Mercier St., Suite 270-D2, Kansas City, MO 64111.
    • Phone: (913) 964-3300
    • “Products to the people,” Teresa Hamilton says, is her organization’s main goal.
    • Check the website for more information. Speakers are available for groups that would like more information.

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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