Declutter for a Cause 2014: The Fundraiser That Dressed Up a Community

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I just can’t see a way around giving back. We are compelled to, we must, we should, we need to. Hear Evelyn Alvarez’ story and tell me I m wrong.
In 2012, hours before Evelyn Alvarez was to attend a friend’s wedding, her babysitter cancelled. Desperate, Alvarez called the bride—”on her wedding day!” she exclaims—to ask whether her son, Sen’ari, then 6, could attend. The bride agreed. Alvarez dashed to a store near her home in the Bronx to find Sen’ari a suit and realized, “This stuff is expensive!”

Alvarez was tempted to spend her electric-bill money on a nice-looking number in Sen’ari’s size, but instead she grabbed a too-short suit from the sale rack. Sen, as Alvarez calls him, had a great time dancing and never noticed that his pant legs were grazing the tops of his socks.

But Alvarez was frustrated. A youth educator, doula and radio show host, she’d always been known for practical solutions to tough problems. When a friend was diagnosed with brain cancer, Alvarez helped raise $20,000 to put toward her treatment. For years she’d co-organized volunteer projects—cleaning community gardens, donating school supplies—with her girlfriends. Now she wondered why she knew of no charities dedicated to helping young men dress for proms, graduations, job interviews and weddings. If she had struggled to buy Sen’ari a suit, how did parents with three kids manage? There were groups that funneled secondhand prom dresses to girls. Clearly, someone needed to start a similar organization for boys.

Alvarez decided to do it herself. In the fall of 2012, she began dragging Sen to the far ends of Queens and Brooklyn to collect donated suits, shirts, ties and shoes. “I never want a kid from my neighborhood to miss an opportunity,” she says, “just because he has nothing to wear.” In 2013, Alvarez outfitted ten boys for prom, arranging some hand-offs of donated clothes at a local café and delivering others by hand.

But Prom King, as she named her organization, still consisted only of Alvarez, her subway card and her inexhaustible stamina—until, late one night, she was scrolling through O’s website and saw an advertisement for the magazine’s second annual Declutter for a Cause contest. O and organizing guru Peter Walsh had challenged readers to submit proposals for charity yard sales in their towns, with Walsh promising to help bring one reader’s event to fruition.

“When you read about decluttering in magazines, it’s always in suburbia,” Alvarez says. “But what if you want to declutter in the hood?” She imagined an event that would let Bronx residents donate clothes to help men and boys in their own backyard; the bounty would be sold at low prices to raise money for Prom King. “My donors don’t have to be rich,” Alvarez says. “They just have to have a couple of extra shirts.”

She clicked SEND and forgot about her entry—until an O editor called to say her proposal had been chosen. “Evelyn’s idea came from a personal place,” says Walsh. “And it was clear from her email that she was a powerhouse.”

“I was like, For real?!” says Alvarez. But during her first call with Walsh, she was so overwhelmed (what if she couldn’t pull this off?) that she told her friend Nneka she might decline. Nneka said, “Are you crazy?”

It was the jolt Alvarez needed. She emailed Walter E. Puryear III, director of the Andrew Freedman Home, a majestic estate built in the Bronx in the 1920s that now serves as a community artist work space. Puryear donated use of the venue for the event and asked one of his artists in residence, Aaron Lazansky-Olivas, to design an illustration for the program. Between working three jobs and ferrying Sen’ari to and from school, Alvarez emailed friends on the city council for help nailing down donation drop-off centers. Walsh contacted You Move Me, a moving company owned by 1-800-GOT-JUNK? founder and CEO Brian Scudamore (who is also a friend), which agreed to do home pickups of donations. O’s designers whipped up a flier, and Alvarez shared it online. Sen’ari gave the event its name: The Bronx Suits Up!

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Alvarez also contacted Robin Brown, a friend and event planner. They made a formidable team: Alvarez spouted “what ifs,” and Brown followed up with spreadsheets, action plans and results—like convincing Sweet Dreams Gourmet Mini Donuts in Queens to provide treats to attendees. Meanwhile, O assistant Joseph Zambrano wrangled donated shirts and ties from Sean John; button-downs from Kenneth Cole; jackets from Suitsupply; blazers, shirts, shoes and accessories from Bloomingdale’s; 20 plaid wool suits from JackThreads; and more blazers from Guess. O staffer Kristi Stewart corralled a flood of suits from the congregations of the nearby Strait Gate the Church at Westchester and Trinity Church in Greenwich, Connecticut, and Alvarez was thrilled to receive donations from friends (and friends of friends) all over the city.

The team rejoiced: There were wares to sell. But then they stressed about weather. The forecast called for 90-degree heat and thunderstorms, and the sale was to be held on the Freedman Home’s terrace. Brown went into denial: At the mere mention of rain, she’d shriek, “Don’t say that!”

The night before the event, after 12 sweaty hours of dragging dozens of heavy boxes into the Freedman Home, then pricing and hanging donations, Alvarez and her friends shared pizza in the stately building, laughing so loudly a security guard asked if they could keep it down.

“I’m tired,” said Alvarez, splayed out in a chair. She began tossing out ideas for the event’s proceeds. “I want to start an inspirational-speaking tour for boys,” she said. “There are programs for the top tier and the neediest tier, but what about the people in the middle?”

Then the talk turned to the cuteness of Blue Ivy Carter, the struggles of large-breasted women and restaurants where the group could share mimosas when all of this was over.

“As you get older, you don’t see your tribe as much as you’d like,” Alvarez said. “So to get together like this….”

Before she could tear up, Brown cut her off: “There’s no crying in event planning!”

The next morning Alvarez dragged clothing racks out the front door of the Freedman Home as Nneka styled the tie station. Another friend, Janelle, trained the cashiers to check out customers using iPads borrowed from her job. Alvarez’s sister Lissette decided the volunteers should wear some of the sillier donated ties (starting with the one featuring a pig playing a trumpet). At 9 A.M., Walsh appeared, sized up Alvarez and concluded, “I don’t want to get in her way—she’ll run me down.”

By 10:30, DJ ShortyLove was blasting Iggy Azalea, and Janelle was celebrating the first sale (total: $60). By noon, another friend, Doris, was helping a group of men try on shoes donated by Rockport and Sperry Top-Sider, and Janelle was up-selling customers at the register. At 12:30, Alvarez and Walsh auctioned off $100 gift cards donated by Kohl’s.

Amazingly, there was no rain—just heat. As the temperature climbed into the 80s, shoppers rushed the coolers of donated Resource Natural Spring Water as if stocking up for a hurricane. But by 3 P.M., the event was bathed in shade. A lanky 16-year-old named Isaias shopped with his mother for Rockports, which he needed for the youth organizing campaigns he’s working on. “I was meeting with the public advocate, and my mom was like, ‘Man, I don’t have any shoes for you!'” he said.

Walsh, fanning himself, scanned the men pulling blazers from racks and said admiringly, “Evelyn’s got people on fire.”

When it was all over, the You Move Me guys hauled away the extra clothes (bound for Alvarez’s apartment, to furnish sales planned for the fall), and Janelle broke out a bottle of champagne. Alvarez offered a toast: “To teamwork, which makes the dream work!” Someone else added, “And to—no offense—it being over!”

During the final hour of the event, while other dehydrated volunteers leaned on chairs to stay upright, Alvarez twerked happily on the lawn. “It’s amazing to see kids’ faces light up when they get their first tie, their first suit,” she said later. “There’s something empowering about knowing you’re presenting the best version of yourself to the world.”

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