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Women in Focus

Q&A: Lisa Gurwitch on K.I.D.S./Fashion Delivers & Helping Families In Need

Emma Goddard
by Emma Goddard Published on June 12, 2015
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When a 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal on April 25, over 8,000 died and thousands more were injured. Just weeks later, a massive 7.3 aftershock rocked the country once again. Amidst the rubble, having lost friends and family, many of the survivors were left homeless without food, water and their belongings. In response to the disaster, countries and organizations alike stepped up to provide aid.

Of them was K.I.D.S./Fashion Delivers, a nonprofit dedicated to helping families in need. By connecting retailers, manufacturers and foundations, the organization works to provide children and their families with new clothes, shoes and home goods completely unused. From natural disasters and tragedies like that in Nepal, to helping those simply in poverty, everyone who works for K.I.D.S./Fashion Delivers aims to make a difference in the world.

One of those individuals is President and CEO, Lisa Gurwitch, who, with children of her own, wants others to be able to have everything she and her family have had in life. Wewomen spoke with Gurwitch about the process behind K.I.D.S./Fashion Delivers and the duty we all have to help those who need it most.

Lisa Gurwitch © K.I.D.S./Fashion Delivers Can you tell me more about K.I.D.S./Fashion Delivers?

Gurwitch: So we work with a number of different kinds of industries, sometimes people think about us as just about children, with the name K.I.D.S., but sometimes people think it's just about fashion with the name Fashion Delivers. We work with the children’s industry, the apparel industry, shoes, all kinds of things that you would consider to be apparel and also home goods.

​Last year, [we received] over $155 million of new products because everything, with the exception of Burlington Warm Coats & Warm Hearts drive, that we work with is brand new, beautiful merchandise. And those companies provide everything from shoes to clothing to toys to sometimes videos, home goods — things like sheets and towels — things that people need if they are trying to reenter the non-homeless category. People coming out of homelessness, people coming out of incarceration, cribs and strollers — things that new moms and new dads need. So really, we’re about providing new beginnings to people.

So this is an interesting concept, different from other organizations for instance like Goodwill and Salvation Army where the clothes and merchandise you receive is brand new. What was the reasoning behind new clothes versus just clothes in general?

​Gurwitch: Emma, I’m really glad that you asked that. Those other organizations that you mentioned also provide very useful services and go far beyond just the clothing and everything that they sell, and we embrace everybody in our sector. Our purpose is a little bit different. K.I.D.S. and Fashion Delivers were, until a year ago, two separate organizations that merged. And they were both founded coming out of either disasters like Katrina for Fashion Delivers or the situation in Ethiopia with starvation for K.I.D.S.

​So in addition to really trying to address the disaster like poverty and illness that take place everyday we also try to address natural disasters that happen locally and around the world. And we have found that providing people with something new gives them hope and dignity and self-esteem. And it’s not just our saying that. It's actually the people that we work with — all the organizations, we have a thousand — that work with the beneficiary, the individuals every day they tell us that.

Just this week I visited the Ronald McDonald house that is on the Upper East Side — it’s the largest one in the country — and they deal, almost exclusively, with families whose children are very ill with cancer. And to know that sometimes the families are many miles from home and to know that they could be here from a warm country to New York in the dead of winter, they would have coats that they need because they have to run around in the cold or to have some nice toys to play with. It’s quite profound. And so, having new merchandise is really important to us.

Our 9th Annual Women In Industry Luncheon.

A photo posted by K.I.D.S. / Fashion Delivers (@donateproduct) on Jun 3, 2015 at 9:53am PDT

What is the process like recruiting companies to donate, and getting that merchandise to families?

Gurwitch: Well the way that we are able to leverage our energy is to work with tremendously generous companies, and some are big household names like H&M and Men’s Wearhouse. And sometimes they’re small companies, they’re manufacturers or designers. They give us brand new merchandise and then we match it with organizations that can use it well. So we have a process of qualifying the nonprofits because we want to make sure they are nonprofits who are serving people in need or who are ill, and that includes children, veterans.

There are many veterans and military families in need. In fact one of our agencies recently told us that one out of three homeless is a veteran. And so we match the merchandise with an organization that works. So for instance, if it's home goods, then that would go to an organization that deals with transitional housing or a disaster situation like Katrina or Sandy. When there is a disaster, the companies we work with are tremendously responsive and will try to help provide us with useful merchandise and that’s very important. We don’t want it to sit in a warehouse, we want it to be given when it’s much-needed on the ground.

Have you been able to meet with any children or families who have been impacted by the organization? Or do you see the aftermath of things like natural disasters that put people out of their homes?

Gurwitch: Absolutely and we get to do this a lot. I was at the Lower East Side Service Center about a month ago; that’s an organization that’s been around for about 50 years. They work with people who are really struggling with the disease of addiction. They have a residential program and they have men and women there in addition to their regular program, and they also have a whole wing devoted to pregnant women. So I got to talk with one of the moms who was there, and you know, you’re only there if you’re struggling with addiction, and we’re talking serious addiction so things like heroin.

This young woman looked like she could have been one of my kids because I have kids the same age. And she talked about how fortunate she was to be there and many of these people have been ostracized by their own families and have been made to feel that they really don’t have a lot of worth. When you are about to give birth to a new baby the thing you want most for people is that they feel really good and that they can stay as healthy as possible, but that that baby can also stay as healthy as possible. We have given them some fabulous strollers and she had talked about how she was looking forward to that and how everyone in this program felt confident that they were really going to work hard to give their babies a healthy start.

Do you feel the children, especially those who are quite young, understand and appreciate K.I.D.S./Fashion Delivers' service?

Gurwitch: For children, I think that we can’t really imagine just how stressful their lives can be. We serve all 50 states and abroad, but just in New York alone there are over 20,000 homeless children. If they don’t know necessarily where they’re going to live from month to month or if their parents are going to be in the picture, to know that they have clothing to wear and the basics — it’s truly critical.

Being a mother yourself, how does your work impact you seeing these children and families in poverty or affected by disasters every day?

Gurwitch: Well my kids are grown and every family that I meet, anywhere in the world, I wish for them everything that my children have had. I wish the very best for all of them. And that’s why I’m in this work and I formerly practiced law. And the board members work very hard and that’s why these companies are doing it as well. Many people, you know when you sit down and talk with them, many successful people may have had issues with poverty or with disaster or with some sort of illness themselves. So it comes from their own personal experience and their commitment that they really want to provide the best for as many people as they can.

When did you first decide you wanted to start working for causes like this?

Gurwitch: You know it actually happened at the time when my children were very young and I was offered the opportunity to go into the world of philanthropy. I was very committed to continuing to work in the workplace — and I respect moms who decide that they want to make their family their full-time work — but I wanted to stay put and I wanted to feel that the time I was spending away from my family was serving a greater purpose. I wanted to feel that I was giving back to my community. I felt very fortunate and [have had] the really unique privilege and the honor to do this kind of work now for over 20 years.

If you had a message to send to others encouraging them to help with a good cause like this or work for a nonprofit, what would it be?

Gurwitch: Get involved. If you choose to make this your career, I think you’d find it incredibly gratifying. If you choose to go into a for-profit sector, the entrepreneurial sector, that’s great. You can still make a difference with your volunteer time and many of the donations that you see from companies are from young people who are on the front lines who make sure that the companies provide us with exceptional merchandise or additional merchandise, and so they are making a difference. You can do it through your professional endeavors or through your volunteer time. But do something.

How will you give back? Tweet us @wewomenUSA!

This article was written by Emma Goddard. Follow her on Twitter @egoddardhokie.

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