OKEECHOBEE — After nearly 20 years volunteering with and then running (also a volunteer position) My Aunt's House, also known as The Closet, Judy and Ralph "Wendy" Watts have passed the baton or more accurately, hanger, on to the next generation.
Originally the shop was opened in cottage 111, the little yellow house. They had a couple rooms in the back, explained Judy. "We quickly outgrew that and moved to the building where we are now." They were in suite 1 at first but outgrew that as well and ended up where they are today -- 202 N.E. Second Street, Suite 8.
The Wattses came to Okeechobee from West Palm Beach where they had served as foster parents for many children. When they arrived here, they joined a foster parent group and met a woman name Reba Folsum who dreamed of opening a group home for foster children. She wanted to call it, My Aunt’s House, because she said children can be cruel and she wanted the kids staying there to be able to tell friends they were staying at “my aunt’s house.” This way, no one would realize they were in the system unless the child chose to tell them.
Though the group home never came to fruition, she eventually opened a shop bearing that name. At first, the shop was intended to be utilized by foster families but later was made available to anyone in the community who needed help. Judy and Wendy were a part of the project from the very beginning and were even able to obtain fixtures and clothing for the shop from their own daughter after she closed a consignment shop in Royal Palm Beach.
No money is ever exchanged in The Closet, Judy explained. Everyone is a volunteer, and every item is donated. The people who come are referred by one of 10 or 12 different places around town — schools, school board, counselors, Healthy Start, WIC, churches, C.A.S.T.L.E., any of the mental health groups in town, Suncoast, New Horizons, etc., and no one who needs help is ever turned away. Once they have a referral, they can shop for a year. They can go in once a month and get up to three outfits and a pair of shoes per family member. If there is an emergency such as a fire or something, of course, that would be different, Judy explained. They also make exceptions if something comes up like a wedding or funeral or a school play.
My Aunt’s House is financed through grants from the Children’s Service Council and the United Way. Those ALMOST pay the rent and utilities each month, and the rest is usually covered by donations by members of the community. She is amazed by the generosity of the people in Okeechobee. They have never lacked for donations of clothing in The Closet, she said. They only take clients from Okeechobee, so all donations are used for people in this community, she explained.
Judy and Wendy have loved working in and through My Aunt’s House for the last 17 years, but are passing the baton to a new set of caregivers, Lyndsey Ortez and Amanda Hunt-Cannon.
Ortez moved to Okeechobee from Clewiston about five years and found out about My Aunt's House almost immediately. She began spending time there, sorting through clothes and donating some of her children's out grown things. About a year ago, she became an official volunteer, and when the Wattses decided they wanted to retire and spend more time with family, she was ready to take on the challenge. Her friend Amanda was happy to join her in the endeavor. They plan to change some things but keep most things the way they have always been.
“We love the children but are here for anyone who needs help. No one ever gets turned away,” said Judy. “I hope it stays that way and hope Lyndsey will continue that”.
Lyndsey said My Aunt's House needs volunteers, new or gently used clothing and/or cash donations to help with support.
"A place like this needs new blood, younger blood," said Judy. "It is just time."
The Closet is open from Tuesday to Thursday from 9:30-2:30. If you would like to make a donation, call 863-634-2306 to make an appointment.