Whittier mend and swap event benefits local Clothes Closet

Art Stoeberl drops off donations for the Clothes Closet in early May.

When immigrants arrive without warm clothes in the middle of winter, they can head to the Clothes Closet in an alley off Eat Street stocked with coats, boots, coffee cups and silverware.

The free thrift store operates out of a former mortuary in a garage where hearses once pulled in. It’s part of Learning In Style, a center devoted to English language classes that was founded by nuns in 1994.

Learning In Style at 2200 Nicollet Ave. teaches English to more than 350 immigrants per year. Photo courtesy of Learning In Style
Learning In Style at 2200 Nicollet Ave. teaches English to more than 350 immigrants per year. Photo courtesy of Learning In Style

The center will partner with the Whittier Alliance at the Black Forest Inn on May 19 to mend clothing. Residents can bring clothes to repair, with the option to keep them, donate them or exchange them for something new.

At the Clothes Closet, Art Stoeberl recently dropped off several boxes of donations. Volunteer Pat FitzPatrick said housewares like towels and kitchen plates disappear quickly from the shelves.

“That’s like gold to us,” he said.

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Director Martha Nemesi said she’s starting to see more immigrants arriving from Syria. About 150 adult students come through the building on any given day. Eighty percent are Somali refugees, most of them women. Enrollment dropped 18 percent from the prior school year, which staff think may be due to the current political climate.

Aside from English classes, immigrants can take classes in math, computers and the American citizenship test. Summer classes will be available this year for the first time.

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Learning In Style is funded by the state, the federal government, Minneapolis Public Schools, the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Sisters’ foundation.

Learning In Style was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph, the same group that founded their namesake hospital and schools like St. Catherine University and Benilde-St. Margaret’s. Learning In Style’s founders had retired from careers in education before deciding to teach English language classes.

FitzPatrick said the sisters’ impact on local institutions is widespread, if not widely known, and they often volunteer into their 80s.

“They always run under the radar,” FitzPatrick said. “…They never retire.”

The Clothes Closet is open for shopping every Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m.-2 p.m at 2200 Nicollet Ave., typically drawing about 50 visitors per day. All of the goods are free.

“People laugh when I say everything is on sale,” FitzPatrick said. “It’s a great service for people in our community.”

To donate, make an appointment with FitzPatrick at pjfitzpatrick13@gmail.com.

“We are always looking for volunteers,” he said.

The Whittier mend/swap/donate/recycle event is Saturday, May 19 from 1 p.m.-4 p.m. at Black Forest Inn, 9 E. 26th St. The suggested donation is $2-$5.