Neighborhood Nonprofit Aims to Provide Those Less Fortunate With Simple Things

Certain things we take for granted like shampoo, soap or even a clean pair of socks can seem like a luxury to a homeless or underserved individual, but one local nonprofit is committed to trying to remedy that problem by providing those less fortunate with free access to these simple but necessary personal items.

“It’s not a giant, huge thing, but it’s a small thing we can do to make their lives a little bit better,” said Amanda Sutherland, who along with her mother, Jennifer Scott-Sutherland, manage Simple Things – a nonprofit that provides toiletries, clothing and other essential items to guests of the Church of the Advent’s Tuesday night dinner, which operates year-round to offer a free hot meal to anyone in need.

The inception of Simple Things dates back 12 years to when as an eighth-grader attending the British School of Boston (now the British International School of Boston), Amanda was charged with finding a community service project as part of her academic curriculum. “I suggested the Church of the Advent because being able to walk there was a great thing,” said Jennifer, a Beacon Hill resident. And so Amanda began volunteering at the church’s Tuesday night dinner.

Around the holidays that year, Amanda came home and told her mother about a heartbreaking encounter she had with one of the regular dinner guests – a stylish woman now living on the streets whose hair had become severely gnarled because she didn’t have a comb or shampoo.  “Amanda said, ‘we have to do something bout this,’ and that’s what we decided to do,” Jennifer recalled.

For the Christmas dinner that year, Amanda and Jennifer distributed a gift bag containing basic toiletries to guests as they were leaving the dinner.

The idea proved so successful that Amanda and Jennifer provided gift bags to guests at the next year’s Christmas dinner, and over time, they began giving out bags to dinner guests each week.

Simple Things, which became a registered 501-(c)(3) nonprofit five years ago, typically distributes 50 and 70 bags each week from tables set up at the church, and for the last Christmas dinner, that number swelled to 200, Jennifer said.

As they were looking to expand the program, Amanda and her mother did some brainstorming and thought about all the excess toiletries that local hotels likely had on hand. Besides collecting unopened and unused containers of shampoo, body wash and conditioner, Simple Things also accepts partially used containers, which are refilled and sanitized before being distributed to dinner guests. The Omni Parker House was the first hotel to contribute to their recycling program, which has since grown to include between 10 and 12 hotels.

“We’re trying to help hotels limit waste and hotels have products that they are going to throw out,” Jennifer said.

Amanda added, “When hotels rebrand, they can’t use anything with the old branding, so where does it go? Often it goes in the trash. It’s nice to be able to cut down on hotel waste while providing [toiletries] to people who need them.”

Because of COVID-19, the Tuesday night dinners are no longer the sit-down affairs they traditionally were, with between 70 and 80 guests in attendance each week. Instead, meals, along with items from Simple Things, are now distributed in a sturdy take-away plastic bag with handles that Barbara Boles, chef and manager of the church’s Tuesday dinners for more than 30 years, described as the “perfect vehicle” to transport goods.

“We’re giving them a meal and [Simple Things] is giving them what for us is necessity, but for them is a luxury,” Boles said. “It’s a wonderful supplement to the dinner.”

The toiletries given away come in trial-sized containers, making them more portable for dinner guests as they likely would have nowhere to store larger items.

“We give away small-sized items that are easy to stash and throw into a bag,” Boles said. “With libraries shut down, it’s hard enough for them to find a sink, but at least they have hand sanitizer or soap.”

Boles added, “Everyone doesn’t take stuff every week, but sometimes, they’ll ask for a special request, like socks, so Jennifer and Amanda will try to fulfill it.”

But as much as Simple Things benefits the dinner guests, Amanda said her life has also been greatly enriched by the program.

“I would definitely say I’m a better person for having done this, and I hope I have given in some way to the people there,” she said. “Where you’re living is your community, that doesn’t exclude people who are less privileged than you are – it’s everybody.”

The experience has also allowed her to foster relationships with people she likely wouldn’t otherwise have met.

“I definitely have some relationships with people I’ve met through there that I’m very grateful for,” Amanda said. “There are people I’ve known from the very beginning, and I know them by name and see them around. Some of them I care a lot about, and I think they care a lot about me as well.”

She also realizes in the age of COVID-19, people like the dinner guets are in need of a helping hand now more than ever.

“Times are bad for everyone, and they are particularly bad for people who don’t have infrastructure set up for them – you can’t self-isolate at home if you don’t have one,” Amanda said. “So I want to encourage people to donate more than they normally would to shelters and resources for the homeless and underserved people.”

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