ARUNDEL – It was a raw, cold night when Kirstan and Charlie Watson went to the Preble Street Teen Center in Portland to drop off donated coats. On such a cold night, the Arundel couple was struck by the homeless youth at the center.
"These are young people, children really, who are surviving living on the streets of Portland. It was sobering to say the least," Kirstan Watson said.
"When you have the privledge of being fortunate enough to walk away from a situation like that, you start to think about all the things you are grateful for – like a warm roof over your head, and a soft bed to sleep in, every night."
On the drive back home to Arundel, the Watson’s talked about what more they could do for the Preble Street Teen Center, which provides food, clothing, shelter, support and services to homeless and runaway youth and teenagers and assists hundreds of young people each year.
"We talked about how heartbreaking the scene was, what homelessness meant for these kids, why they were living on the streets and finally decided, as very fortunate people with a new found awareness, that something needed to be done," Kirstan Watson said. "We asked ourselves, ‘do we get bogged down in the sadness of it all, or do we do something?’ We decided to do something."
That something was a sock drive, the Shelter Socks Program.
The top item needed at the Preble Street Teen center year-round is socks, Kirstan Watson said, but warm, wool socks are expensive. She knew she could only afford to buy a few pair, so instead, got to thinking about a sock drive, bringing in donated socks, hand-knit socks and money to purchase new pairs.
"What if I could get enough to make a real difference," Watson said. "I originally thought 50 (pairs), but knowing that the overall homeless population in Portland hit over 3,000 in 2013, I decided to go bigger."
More than 100 pairs of warm wool winter socks were collected as a result of the sock drive.
Ray Hepler, Preble Street resource assistant, said socks are the most-requested item in the center’s clothing closets, where the center makes clothing, footwear, and accessories available free of charge to all who need them.
"We go through a couple hundred pairs of socks each week. Foot care directly affects a person’s overall health and wellbeing. Clients spend a great deal of time on their feet waiting in lines – at the soup kitchen, at the shelter, in other agencies to get the help they need. With limited access to laundry facilities, socks are difficult to take care of, and with the hard use and abuse they take, they wear out quickly," he said.
Jaime McLeod, Preble Street communications manager, said the mission statement of the center – which does not limit its services to teens, and offers services to all experiencing homelessness – is "to provide accessible barrier-free services to empower people experiencing problems with homelessness, housing, hunger, and poverty; and to advocate for solutions to these problems."
She said Preble Street is grateful for the contributions of folks like the Watson’s.
"We could not do what we do without the support of businesses, organizations, churches, and generous individuals," McLeod said.
Hepler said the sock drive – and it’s focus on warm socks during these cold months – is filling a desperate, ongoing need.
"Many people who would have gone without, or perhaps with thin cotton socks, will have nice, warm wool socks on their feet as they walk through the snow piling up outside," Hepler said. "They (the socks) have been very popular and there are only a few pairs on hand now."
Kirstan Watson said she is grateful for the outpouring of support she and her husband received from others who bought and donated or knitted warm socks for the sock drive.
"Words can’t possibly express the gratitude I feel for the people of this community, who through acts of kindness, small and large, have provided a desperately needed resource to some incredibly vulnerable people," Kirstan Watson said.
For more information about the sock drive please visit: https://www.facebook.com/ShelterSocksProgram.