|Stephanie Keller, founder of the Undercover Project, presents Willie White of the Nashville Rescue Mission with a donation of undergarments.
Living in downtown Nashville, Stephanie Keller regularly noticed a woman selling newspapers outside of St. Mary’s Church, where Keller is a parishioner. The woman appeared to be dressed in second hand clothes, which made Keller thankful for people who make, and agencies that distribute, clothing donations.
“Then it hit me, just out of the blue, that we need to give underwear to people too,” said Keller. “The very next week I started setting up the Undercover Project.”
The timing for a new initiative was perfect. Keller had been going for walks in her neighborhood, praying about the fact the she “needed to be doing something.” Throughout her life she had volunteered for various helping ministries. She’s worked at Dismas House – which provides transitional housing for the formerly incarcerated – and in nurseries of several Catholic churches. She’s taught religious education for more than 50 years, and served as the director of religious education at St. Ann Church for eight years.
But at this particular juncture she wasn’t doing anything of consequence that satisfied her giving impulses. “God has blessed me with many, many things, and I just think it’s necessary to help others,” Keller said. “So I sent an e-mail out to my friends, asking if anyone would be interested in helping with this project.”
Today, the Undercover Project is an official 501C3 non-profit organization, governed by a board of directors made up of Keller and four friends from several area parishes: Rhea Forte from St. Matthew Church, Mary May from St. Henry Church, Debbie Wolf from St. Ann Church and Susan Skinner from St. Philip Church.
What started out as a way to get underwear to those who are homeless has evolved into a ministry that provides new undergarments – bras, T-shirts, underwear and socks – to numerous sources, like Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, which became one of the Project’s first regular recipients, to help clothe children who had extended stays for surgeries, and who did not have enough of their own.
Donations materialize in a few different ways. Some people donate the underwear and socks directly. Others donate cash, and Keller purchases what she needs to fill a current demand. Occasionally, people have birthday parties and request that guests bring undergarments in lieu of presents. From one such party, Keller collected 532 pairs of underwear, plus $300 in cash, bound for kids in Sumner County Schools.
In general, the numbers are quite impressive, and have grown with each successive year. By the end of the first fiscal year in June 2013, the Project had distributed 900 undergarments, primarily to Vanderbilt’s Clothes Closet and the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. The following year Keller and her crew delivered 1,500 items, and were able to bring one Metro school, Room In The Inn and the Nashville Rescue Mission on board.
Last year they processed more than 3,000 donations, adding three more Metro schools, the Oasis Center and St. Philip’s Clothes Closet to their client roster. “This year, as of March 1, we’ve delivered almost 5,000,” said Keller. “It sounds like a lot, but undergarments are so badly needed. The Rescue Mission needs 150 garments a week; we try to give them 50 a month.”
Although Keller ultimately approached the woman selling newspapers outside St. Mary’s, asked her what she needed, and delivered new undergarments to her, the Undercover Project typically does not deal directly with what Keller calls, “the beneficiaries of the underwear.”
“We collaborate with agencies that serve the homeless, or who work with children that live in subsidized housing,” explained Keller. “Our thinking is that they have a better finger on who needs the underwear and in some cases have the facilities to help them take care of the donated items.”
Although the Undercover Project has continued to grow in undergarment donations, the need has increased exponentially, as well as the list of agencies who would love be on the Undercover’s service route. Unfortunately, because of insufficient funding, Keller has had to turn some potential service agencies down. “We just can’t keep up with the demand,” Keller said. “This is a real need that’s out there. We don’t feel like we can take on new clients, so to speak, until we’re in the financial position to take care of the regular ones we’re trying to serve now.”
For those who would like to support the Undercover Project with undergarment or cash donations, contact Keller at email@example.com or (615) 618-1228, write to P.O. Box 120092, Nashville, TN 37212-0092, or visit www.undercoverproject.org.