OKEECHOBEE — For the last 14 years, Judy and Ralph “Wendy” Watts have been serving the Okeechobee community in many ways, but especially through My Aunt’s House AKA “The Closet.”
The Wattses lived in West Palm Beach before moving to Okeechobee, and they were foster parents. When they moved here, they joined the local foster parent group. One day, a woman named Reba Folsum came to visit the group and said she wanted to start a group home for foster children, similar to Real Life Children’s Ranch, but she had a terrible time getting it started, said Mrs. Watts. Finally, it became evident it just was not going to happen. She had intended to name the home My Aunt’s House, because she said kids can be cruel, and she wanted the kids in the home to be able to tell their friends at school they were staying at “my aunt’s house” rather than at some group home.
When it became evident she wasn’t going to be able to open a group home, she thought about opening a shop where foster families could go to get clothing for free, and that’s where My Aunt’s House was born. There were never enough foster families in town to make a shop just for those families feasible, so they made it a shop for anyone who needs help. When they opened, the Watts’ daughter had just closed a consignment shop in Royal Palm Beach, and she donated many of the fixtures you see in the shop along with all of her leftover clothing, most of which were high quality. “So, we started off in good shape,” said Mrs. Watts.
No money is ever exchanged in The Closet, she said. Everyone is a volunteer, and every item is donated. The people who come are referred by 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, she explained. They also make exceptions if something comes up like a wedding or funeral or a school play. No rule is set in stone, she said. If they have an abundance of shoes, they might say grab two pairs that month.
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.
For most of the 14 years, Mrs. Watts has worked alone with occasional help from volunteers, and her husband has helped when he is able, but for the last few years, he has been able to help a lot more, and she has really enjoyed working side by side with him. She was also excited to talk about Donna Watson. She never had a volunteer that stayed any length of time before who would work with the people, and then about six months ago, Ms. Watson came along. She said she didn’t mind at all dealing with people. Now the Wattses will be able to take a much-needed vacation for the first time in a long time. “She’s just a lifesaver,” she said. “She’s just dynamite.” In addition, she has help with the computer now. Another volunteer, Holly Reinert, has been helping with that, and computers are not Mrs. Watts’ strong suit she so she is very happy to have help with that end of things. They have a few more volunteers who help when they are able, and she said she appreciates every volunteer who walks through the door.
For 14 years, they have taken clients on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, but now that Ms. Watson is there, they are able to accept clients five days a week. They normally schedule them between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Clients are supposed to make appointments, but if they are there, they will accept a walk-in as long as it isn’t too crowded or too close to closing time.
If anyone would like to bring a donation, they are usually there during those hours, but she suggests calling first just in case they had an emergency and could not be there for some reason. The number is 863-634-2306, and the address is 202 N.E. Second St., Suite Eight. They take donations of clothing, shoes, small appliances, baby items, even furniture, but that would be more of a special arrangement where you call and ask if they know anyone who needs a couch, and she says, “Why, yes! I know a young lady who could use a couch.”
The Wattses also do summer camps for children through My Aunt’s House. They are funded by a grant from The Children’s Services Council. For the last 14 years, Mrs. Watts has been doing a two-week sewing camp at Okeechobee Achievement Academy during the summer and Mr. Watts does a scroll saw camp. Both camps can take up to 12 students and priority is given to students who have never taken the classes before.
During the sewing camp, the students learn basic sewing skills such as how to sew on a button, hand sewing and mending. They learn how to use a sewing machine and make several things using a pattern. This year, they made at least two pillowcases each, one for themselves and one to give away to a veteran. They made little organizers for their jewelry and decorative pillows for their room. They also made pajama bottoms that they each wore to the end of camp pizza party. The only cost involved for the campers was the $10 registration fee. All supplies were completely free. They were even served refreshments every day.
Mr. Watts’ class learned the safety features of the scroll saw and took a safety quiz to be sure they understood the importance of safety. Then, they take a piece of wood, put a pattern on it, and away they go! Every day they took home a bunch of stuff, said Mrs. Watts. It’s fun. They use the same classroom he uses during the year when he volunteers his time to teach a scroll saw class at the school. He does this as an incentive for the kids and any of them who meet whatever qualifications the school has in place are allowed to take the class. He has been teaching the class for about ten years now, she said.
“This year was especially good because I didn’t have to shut down The Closet. Donna kept it running smoothly. It was really nice not to worry about that,” she said. The camps are for children age 12 to 18 who are in middle to high school. They usually do their camps first thing in June. So, look for them as soon as school lets out next year.
Mrs. Watts loves working at My Aunt’s House. She said she can’t remember very many days waking up and thinking, “Oh no I have to go to The Closet today.”