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A Half-Century of Help: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Clothes Horse

Trinity CommunicationsMay 17, 2017

(This story first appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Trinity Magazine)

Many students arrive at Trinity each year on a journey of faith.

They come to Deerfield having no idea how they will afford to feed and clothe their children, or how they will furnish even a small apartment. They leave behind loved ones, continents, and cultures. Many balance part-time work with their rigorous academic studies.

“The people who come here are brave,” observes Char Berry (’69). “There’s no other word for it. They believe God brought them here.”

Berry is among dozens of volunteers at Trinity’s Clothes Horse who have helped those faithful students, seeing that everyday needs like diapers, breakfast cereal, and warm winter clothing come at no cost.

The Clothes Horse started half a century ago, in 1967, as a ministry open to all students. Ruth Kantzer, wife of Dean Kenneth Kantzer, saw a need and organized a team of faculty wives and volunteers from local churches.

Those needs have changed in subtle ways through the years. But the same daily financial challenges still exist for Trinity students who have stepped forward on faith.

“A lot of the families come from warm climates and they have no winter stuff,” says Patti Younger, who has been a volunteer and coordinator at the Clothes Horse for many years. “In their minds, they never prepared for those things.”

Food selections at the Clothes Horse are limited, as are supplies of clothing, toys, and furniture. Yet needs are met week after week, and year after year. Donations often are recycled.

“Items come back because when people leave here, they leave behind all of the stuff that they accumulated,” Berry said. “There’s a cycle of things that happen here that is amazing to watch.”

Each visit, shoppers select up to three free items from each area of the store. Longtime volunteer Wilma Sweeney says area churches regularly conduct canned food drives on behalf of the Clothes Horse, and at times nearby grocery stores have donated about $1,000 worth of fresh produce in a single week. Panera donates day-old baked goods.

The commitment to provide food is strong, as feeding families ranks among the most pressing needs on campus. A moment lingers in Younger’s mind from more than a decade ago.

“There was a family from another country — I’m not quite sure where,” Younger recalls. “They were literally in the woods foraging, to see if there was anything edible. I saw that with my own eyes.”

Beginnings in a Basement

The first Clothes Horse location was the basement vault of The Mansion. In the early years, it was little more than a small room in which clothing was stored and distributed. A few years later, it moved to a larger room in “The Compound,” a collection of utility buildings in the early years of the Deerfield campus.

As enrollment grew, so did the students’ needs. A move to its present site in the Aldeen Building during the early 1990s brought added room, but need quickly caught up with that increased capacity.

A lack of space was not the only concern.

The store was sorely in need of refurbishment, including a new floor plan and better furniture. The need for this work caught the attention of volunteers from Arlington Heights Evangelical Free Church (now known as The Orchard), who brought the situation to the attention of the congregation’s missions pastor. In March 2005 the church contributed $1,500 as well as a team of volunteers to help with renovation.

New furniture would be on the way. Moldy carpeting gave way to tile flooring. But the physical layout did not lend itself to shopping. During this time, Younger started imagining a better space. She sketched out a floor plan that involved repositioning walls and recruiting help.

“This offer of help was an enormous encouragement,” says long-time volunteer Ruth Scharf. “It was telling us that God was going before us!”

In June of that year, the team went to work, and the following fall semester, the Clothes Horse served 265 clients during about 1,000 separate visits.

Faculty Wives and Community Contributions

In the beginning, faculty wives put in thousands of hours. They would wash donated clothing and then iron the men’s dress shirts, so they could be ready “off the rack” for anyone who had a last-minute interview, or obligations to officiate at a wedding or funeral.

“When we renovated, we had to get rid of all the old stuff and I found little signs that read ‘needs to be washed’ and ‘needs to be ironed,’” says Kristen Johnson, who has been a Clothes Horse volunteer since 2000.

Sometimes, the storage areas would become flooded from spring and summer rains, and the process of cleaning clothes would start from scratch.

Johnson remembers the moment she committed to working at the Clothes Horse. She happened to be there when Susan Woodbridge, who managed operations for years, emerged with bags of wet clothing after floodwater leaked into a storage area.

“She looked at me and said, ‘Are you here to help?’ And I said, ‘I can,’” Johnson recalls. “That’s what started the whole thing for me.”

The examples of faithful faculty wives inspired others to take up the work. Many mention the contributions of Woodbridge, Joy Carson, or the example of Marietta Coleman, the late wife of former faculty member Robert Coleman.

“Marietta’s infectious enthusiasm to serve the student community opened my eyes to see God working,” Scharf says. “I saw God working in loving detail, meeting needs as well as giving us the gift of getting to know student families. I could watch how they served and encouraged each other.”

As years passed, faculty wives were more likely to have outside employment and older children in need of more attention.

Help came from local churches and from TEDS students. By 2007, there were 33 volunteers, 24 of whom were not faculty wives.

The passing of decades also saw the larger North Shore and Chicago communities making investments in the Clothes Horse.

“That happened organically,” Johnson says. “Someone needed diapers, and they discovered someone had a connection with the Archdiocese of Chicago, which had started a collection drive.”

A similar conversation started the Panera bread connection.

“A student would say, ‘Hey, I work at Panera and they give away (day-old baked goods) for free,’” Johnson remembers. “’I’ll just bring it.’”

‘You Can’t Make These Things Up’

At a banquet on campus March 11 to celebrate the 50th anniversary, long-time observers of life at the Clothes Horse lingered after the formal program to share their own stories of unlikely blessings.

>>There was the TEDS student who had to officiate at a funeral for the first time. He did not have a dark suit, nor could he afford to buy one. The day before the funeral, that student came to the Clothes Horse and found a dark suit that fit him perfectly.

>>And then there was the girl who returned to campus on furlough with her family after four years on the mission field. She had grown out of her favorite dress, which she obtained at the Clothes Horse. Someone had donated a larger dress that was otherwise identical to her favorite, and it fit perfectly.

>>Another time, someone donated a fur coat. It arrived just as a couple departed Trinity for the mission field in Russia.

“Who else could we give a fur coat to?” Susan Woodbridge asks rhetorically with a smile.

>>“Remember the would-be piano teacher?” Johnson asks colleagues. “One student was going to teach piano to another student in exchange for something else, but she didn’t have the music notebooks or the lesson plans. Wouldn’t you know we had 12 Progressive Beginning Piano teaching books?”

Volunteers at the Clothes Horse, no matter the era in which they worked, tell similar stories that point to God’s providence.

“I think that’s why, as faculty wives, we are so emotional about the Clothes Horse,” Johnson said the night of the banquet.

“We see the impact. I mean, you can’t make these things up.”

Gathered at the Village Well

For many, visiting the Clothes Horse is among the week’s social highlights.

“When I think of the Clothes Horse, I liken it to the town’s well, where everyone gathers and gleans news about the community,” says Irene Sun, a Master of Theology student and the wife of a Ph.D. student. “This was where I found out when dear friends were pregnant, or whether they were having a boy or a girl, or who had just given birth. This was where I got to tell friends when we were expecting, and where I introduced my own babies to the community.”

Two years ago, Sun stumbled at the top of the stairway just outside the Clothes Horse entrance. She lost consciousness briefly and sustained a head wound.

“A sister came with clean towels for my bleeding head,” Sun says. “A brother calmed my children and prayed with them. Another person called the security, and then the ambulance. A sister started driving to Vernon Hills to pick up my husband, who was studying at home that day.”

Sun jokes that if she had to fall down a flight of stairs, there was no better place to do so.

“In that chaos, that fearful waiting for the arrival of the ambulance, someone sat beside me,” Sun said. “She was wearing a pink jacket, and she was praying—in Spanish. That was how I met my friend Berni.”

Grateful in a Time of Need

Alice Pilkington’s testimony is touching but typical of the help cycle repeated scores of times in 50 years of service from the Clothes Horse.

She vividly remembers the day about three years ago when she and her husband Matthew, a new M.Div. student at the time, set foot on the Trinity campus.

“We arrived from England with a five-month-old baby,” Alice recalls. “We came with three suitcases, and we arrived on campus to our unfurnished apartment.”

No cooking or serving utensils, and nothing beyond a couple of sleeping bags for bedding. Alice soon discovered that her situation was common, and help was as close as the Clothes Horse, a short walk from the new campus apartment.

“I went in and spoke to the ladies who were helping out on that day, and I said, ‘Can I just have anything that you could offer me?’” Pilkington says. “They were so kind, and they loaded up a car with pots and pans and plates and towels and bedding.”

The response went beyond anything she expected.

“The Clothes Horse furnished our house, more bountifully than we could have ever imagined. We had all that we needed.”

As with many others, Alice and Matthew will leave behind as much as possible for another family to use when they return home to England after graduation. But they’ll take home a lifetime of memories and friendships that started at the Clothes Horse.

“The women who serve there are so genuinely interested in you,” Pilkington says. “I’m just blessed to have had somebody interact with me on a personal level, and just be interested in my life.”

Sustaining the Next Half Century – How You Can Help

Early in the Dockery administration, Trinity added a paid administrator to the Clothes Horse staff for processing donations, soliciting additional help, and maintaining day-to-day operations. Faculty wives continue to serve faithfully, as they have since 1967.

But there are still areas of need. Gently used items that can benefit a young family are welcome, as are cash donations and clothing in good condition. Cash donations go through the Trinity advancement website, or by checks payable to Trinity International University, with “Clothes Horse” on the memo line. Undesignated monetary donations typically go for food purchases. Gifts are tax-deductible.

Some needs are more specialized. Additional volunteers and vans could help transport and distribute fresh produce. Area grocery stores are generous in supplying these foods. The limitations often involve logistics.

An aspiring Eagle Scout has plans to rework the Clothes Horse storage area in an upstairs Aldeen room, but similar work is needed organizing furniture storage.

Volunteers and donors enjoy the looks of gratitude and satisfaction from students and their families. But word of these efforts spread to other countries and are remembered for generations.

“The Clothes Horse is known all over the world,” according to an annual report presented in 2003. “Student families return to their countries and talk about the Clothes Horse.”

From the same report: “One international student wife said that she and her fellow Africans say ‘Jesus is in the Clothes Horse,’ because of the way they feel many family needs are met providentially through donations.”

“When you see God’s specific provision again and again, you just know there’s something special happening there,” Johnson says. “It’s easy to protect it and give to it and serve to it and honor it.”


The Clothes Horse
Hours: Tuesday, 9:30am–3:30pm (open until 5:30pm on the first and third Tuesday of every month) and Thursday, 9:30-11:30am. Summer and holiday hours may vary.


Location: South entrance, Aldeen Building, Trinity campus


Mailing Address for financial donations:
Trinity International University
Attn: Wilma Sweeney, Clothes Horse
2065 Half Day Road, Deerfield, IL 60015


Contact: Brett Mitchell, 847-317-7072 or [email protected]

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