Drop-off shop offers chance to give back

Molly Browne column

The Pick sits in the basement of an old, brick apartment building in south Evanston. Clothes, shoes, books and furniture are packed inside, lending a cluttered vitality to the space.

The people who visit The Pick, located on Reba Place, on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month are as colorful as the pink pumps sitting by the door.

You might buy your shoes at Nordstrom’s, but patrons of The Pick don’t have that luxury. The basement is filled with donated items for low-income residents, the homeless and elderly. I dropped off old sweaters and a jacket last weekend; I prefer seeing the people who benefit from such donations, rather than placing my things in an anonymous cardboard box.

Reba Place Church rents the space and an anonymous donor pays utilities. There are no price tags or limits on how many items people can take. Designer labels are scattered throughout, but the woman in front of me doesn’t care if her dress is Tahari or Target. A dress is a dress.

Evanston resident Vallen Whittaker has run The Pick for nine years. It’s existed for over 20. She runs it like Prada; she wants her customers to feel appreciated, human.

Whittaker knows what it’s like to need The Pick when there’s no coat in the closet to survive the winter. The Belize native has supported herself with several jobs over the years — she used to work at Elder dining hall.

What makes The Pick special is that it’s for the community, by the community. I met the Flores family there. With four children in tow, the matriarch appeared flustered. I asked her son if he liked basketball, noticing the University of North Carolina sweatshirt he sported. When he didn’t seem to understand me, I realized maybe it came courtesy of The Pick.

A Minnie Mouse T-shirt caught the eye of his older sister, who couldn’t have been more than 10. Armed with an empty plastic bag and her precociousness, she perused the stacks, pausing at times to dust off a sweater, spinning it around to look for imperfections.

Her younger sister was a vision of Christmas morning, rocking back and forth on a purple plastic see-saw, tossing her hair in imaginary wind. I almost knocked a videotape from a shelf as I stepped out of her way. “A Family Adventure in Learning,” the case read.

When filling a request is possible, Whittaker is quick to accommodate. Sometimes she uses her own holiday money to buy necessary items that aren’t coming in.

Celena Adams said Whittaker is a godsend.

“The Pick is a wonderful place,” Adams said. “I’ve been coming here for a year and I’ve managed to outfit a man from the halfway house with an entire wardrobe.”

This weekend is Dance Marathon, a remarkable philanthropic event that does tremendous good for its beneficiaries. I’ve never been involved with DM in my tenure. As a senior I started feeling bad about that.

But last weekend I went to The Pick and saw firsthand what a little bit of immediate generosity can do.

No need to dance for 30 hours. That was good enough for me.

Molly Browne is a Medill senior. She can be reached at [email protected]