There have been times Amanda Boshey has had to choose between having fed kids and having clean kids.
“I’m a single mother going full-time to school,” the nursing student and Kansas City mother of four said the other day. “I really don’t have the money for deodorant, shavers, toilet paper, tampons and stuff like that.”
A variation of that scenario repeats itself more times than folks in Kansas City probably care to think about. Kids go to school in clothes that haven’t been washed in weeks because their family can’t afford detergent. Dads don’t talk because they know their breath stinks and they have no money for toothpaste. Moms use socks as pantiliners. Seniors cry to strangers because they need adult diapers.
Enter Teresa Hamilton and Giving the Basics.
The Kansas City nonprofit’s name is nearly self-explanatory: Over the last six years they have collected and distributed millions of hygiene products, including shampoo, soap, detergent, toothbrushes, combs, diapers, floss and practically a shipload of toilet paper.
“If you’re going to give people food,” she said, rather matter-of-factly, “you better give them toilet paper, right?”
Food is one thing Giving the Basics doesn’t distribute. Instead, the group is laser-focused on 33 basic things everyone needs but government assistance doesn’t cover.
From its 20,000-square-feet underground storage facility off of 31st Street, Giving the Basics distributes hygiene products all over the city via 315 agencies, schools and police departments. Soon, thanks to a nearly $1 million donation from Peter and Veronica Mallouk, Giving the Basics will open a second 24,000-square-feet location on the Kansas side.
“As parents of two 12-year-olds and a 16-year-old, we can’t imagine our kids without these basics,” Peter Mallouk said. “It’s a shame this is an issue in our city, but in reality it is. Anything we can do to alleviate that injustice is a good thing.”
This whole shebang started in Hamilton’s garage after she received a call from a single mom who was trying to raise six kids on government assistance and no child support.
“People think you can walk into a big box store if you’re on government assistance and get what you need, and you can’t,” Hamilton said. “I told her to go swipe her electronic benefits card and get the stuff she needed. She said, ‘I did and it was really embarrassing because they took out everything I needed to keep my kids clean.’”
Hamilton and husband Bob — parents of six boys and six girls themselves and owners of Bob Hamilton Plumbing — helped the family for about 10 months, getting the woman back on her feet. Hamilton thought that would be the end of it. It wasn’t.
“There was just this paralyzing feeling that there were others, and I couldn’t shake it,” she said.
The family’s attorney suggested she assuage her uneasiness by writing a check to a charity, but she’d already called all over the metro and discovered all the agencies had the same problem: There was no consistent method for getting the right hygiene products in the hands of those who needed them. Product drives would dump 500 bars of soap in one place or 100 bottles of shampoo at another. Stuff got shared, but stuff went to waste, too.
So Hamilton and friends came up with a system of tracking need for a limited list of hygiene products in the city. They can tell you if City Union Mission needs toothbrushes this week or if Good Samaritan Project is out of detergent.
“They are a life saver,” said Kim Davis, executive director of Amethyst Place, recovery housing for homeless women and their children. “Before Giving the Basics came along, our moms did without. We scrambled around for donations. Our people would go on vacation and bring back their sample shampoos and soaps and things like that from hotels. We really scrounged around and relied on donations, but they were inconsistent. With Giving the Basics, we can select the items our families need. It is brilliant.”
(By the way, Davis has blunt words for scolds wagging their fingers about why the poor can’t just pull themselves up by their bootstraps: “If you say, ‘It’s your fault that you’re poor,’ that lets you off the hook to help these people. I think that’s someone who doesn’t want to take responsibility. Every human being I know has had some help along the way somewhere.”)
For schoolkids, particularly adolescents, being clean can mean the difference between being bullied or not. Dirty kids sit in the back of the classroom, keep their hands down, disappear. They avoid attention. They fear making friends, because then those friends might want to come over to their house — and they’re ashamed of their house.
Lauren Grimes, nursing supervisor for Kansas City public schools has witnessed the positive results of Giving the Basics. Teen girls get pantiliners and feel comfortable asking questions about their health. Boys get deodorant and start talking to other kids.
Not all that long ago, a little first-grade girl came to school with a mouthful of cavities. Nurses asked if she brushed her teeth. No, she said. Did she have a toothbrush? No, she said. Did her mom have a toothbrush? No.
“So this little first-grader, no toothpaste, no toothbrush — nobody in her family had one,” Grimes said. “So we took what we got from Giving the Basics to provide the whole family toothbrushes and toothpaste.”
Hamilton said this mission of hers isn’t about religion or politics. She just wants to free people from shame, and help get them to a place where they can help themselves. The group also has tracked need across the country for the last seven years and many cities are interested in learning more about what they do.
Recently, a doctor with KU Med’s cardio unit reached out for her help: A patient wouldn’t take her diabetes medicine because it made her have to go to the bathroom and she couldn’t afford incontinence pads. If she didn’t take the meds, the woman would likely end up having a heart attack.
“That’s the problem that seniors are having: They don’t want to take anything because it makes them go to the bathroom,” Hamilton said. “You can’t build muscle strength when you have no water on board, so they just get weaker and weaker.”
Then, like a linebackers coach or a Marine Corps sergeant, Hamilton says, “I’m going to nail this incontinence thing to the wall.”
On a recent Friday during product pick-up, vans and vehicles lined up eight and nine deep to pick up their paper products, soaps and ethnic hair products for the month. Three times a month, volunteers load the trucks for a couple of hours. Or they sort and shelve products. Giving the Basics logged more than 7,400 volunteer hours last year alone. Many ask when they can come back.
“I had one little boy that kept tugging on my shirt when he was volunteering, and he kept saying, ‘Can you help my friend next door?’” Hamilton said. “And his mom looked at me and kind of rolled her eyes kind of like ‘It’s a big mess over there.’ After she walked away, the kid walked over and said, ‘Help my friend anyway.’”
For more information
Giving the Basics is located at 3150 Mercier St., Suite 270-D2, Kansas City. 913-964-3300. In addition to the items mentioned in the story, products such as dish soap, trash bags, storage bags, cleaners, dental floss, diapers, pull-ups, wipes, shaving cream and tissues also are needed. Find a complete list of products at GivingTheBasics.org.