Smalls for All is a local Charity JCI Edinburgh will be working with and promoting throughout 2017. Today is International Women’s Day and JCI Edinburgh is proud to promote an inspirational local woman, Maria Macnamara who has done amazing work to help women across Africa.
Why did you start Smalls and what are your aims with Smalls?
It was never my intention to set up a charity, let alone one that collects pants and bras. It was after a volunteering holiday in 2009 to Ethiopia that I thought about doing a one off collection for 2000 pairs of pants. I’d read about the problems lack of underwear caused, particularly for women and girls, so I did some research for about a month when I got back and talked to some people who were distributing underwear in Africa. The 2000 target ended up being 10,000 by the end of the year and I made my first trip to Kenya in January 2010 with 1500 pairs of pants stuffed into 2 suitcases. I distributed the pants in 3 IDP camps and in the last camp I knew that I didn’t want it to be a one off. Through the early part of 2010 I resisted setting up a charity as wasn’t really sure whether it was possible, I mean a charity distributing pants and bras? However the underwear kept coming in and then people wanted to donate money to help, but I didn’t have a bank account for Smalls. I made 3 trips in 2010 taking over 4000 pants to Kenya and so it just seemed like the right thing to do given the need is so great. So Smalls for All was established as a charity in August 2010.
I hope that we can continue to grow Smalls so we can help more women and children, but also want to explore other ways we can help in the future too, by providing them with the means of being self sufficient.
When and How did Smalls grow to what it is today?
When I set up Smalls I was working full time. I was also a respite carer, looking after children, for 2 weekends every month. Smalls was my “hobby or passion” for evenings, weekends and holidays. So it had to grow gradually. At the beginning, I was storing underwear in my house and garage. It wasn’t until 2013 we built the “Pantagon” in my back garden as we were outgrowing my garage. It all changed in August 2015 when suddenly we became better known thanks to social media, we grew dramatically almost overnight, going from 900 likes on facebook to 50,000 in one week. This was both an amazing and also a scary, challenging time. On the one hand the donations started pouring in, but on a practical front, where on earth were we going to store the massively increased volume of underwear. Although I’ve got the best, supportive friends, I felt we were sinking fast and couldn’t keep up with the all the work our overnight growth generated. It wasn’t just where we were going to store things and manage all the unpacking and sorting, it also resulted in a massive increase in enquiries, through emails and social media, as well as from the media. We were then fortunate enough to get some space from West Lothian Council which took the pressure off in terms of storage. And it wasn’t long before we had a small army of volunteers ready to tackle the mountain of donations arriving daily. Now we are in different premises and have amazing volunteers that turn up regularly to help with the sorting and packaging of underwear. We also have a team of volunteers to help to respond to enquiries coming in through social media, as well as a volunteer team going out to talk to local schools, churches and community groups to raise awareness. Without our pantastic supporters we wouldn’t be able to do what we are doing today.
What inspires you to keep Smalls growing?
Although I knew when I started donating underwear to people in Africa I understood how much it meant to them on a practical level, I didn’t fully appreciate the emotional side, I’ve had such amazing feedback from people, so grateful for 3 pairs of pants. From ladies who have suffered with fistula who can now wear pants to Church and girls who don’t have to leave school half way through the day. Each trip to Africa (I’ve made 16 so far) when I’ve been distributing underwear it just makes me want to do more. And even more amazing are the letters we receive from people donating the underwear. Many a time I’ve been near tears reading letters from husbands that have lost wives, women who have lost mothers, daughters, sisters and from women who, for whatever reason, can no longer wear their bras, perhaps due to mastectomy. For some people “regifting” the bras helps the healing process. One lady wrote to me saying she felt like she had lost a part of herself and couldn’t bear putting her bras in the bin and was just so happy that Smalls could take them to help someone else. Another lady had lost her daughter, but on going through her things, she found a parcel that she had been getting ready to send me. It was wonderful to receive that donation. I know education is so important for the kids, not only do the kids I know in Africa love going to school but I believe education can help break the cycle of poverty so many kids find themselves in. We pay for the education of 377 kids in Kenya and Malawi at the moment, I would love to give more kids the chance of an education and a chance of a better future.
What has been your proudest moment since starting Smalls?
There have been a few! When we reached collecting 100,000 pants and bras in August 2015 I couldn’t believe it as originally I only set a target of collecting 2000. I thought we had come a long way since 2010 but little did I know that just over a year later we would hit 300,000 collected. In terms of education, I was so proud of Sarah, a Kenyan girl I’ve known since 2010 and that Smalls has been sponsoring her education going to University. And of course, Smalls and me being honoured with a Point of Light award in 2015 and a MBE in 2016 has been amazing.
If JCI members want to support Smalls how can they do so?
As of January 2017, Smalls for All had collected over 370,000 items of underwear and distributed over 270,000 and we are paying for the education of 377 children. We do all this with the help of many volunteers and 2 part time staff. The growth of Smalls has been pantastic, but it has brought practical challenges. More than anything we need help with fundraising. We also need help from volunteers who can come along and help sort all the underwear donations, we’d love to hear from any digital/IT specialists keen to dedicate some regular time, or just helping to raise awareness is great. And of course if anyone is thinking of going to Africa, you really don’t need 2 suitcases, perhaps one could be filled with underwear?
Look out for events coming up where you can find out more and get involved.
Any questions contact Project Director Samantha.firstname.lastname@example.org