Volunteer Voices: An interview with Bottomless Closet Volunteer Madlyn Stokely

August 2, 2020

A Smiling Bottomless Closet Volunteer

A social worker by training, after a 32 year career at CUNY’s Hunter College, Madlyn joined Bottomless Closet’s ranks as a volunteer in 2018 shortly after her retirement. From her initial interest in serving as a volunteer, through supporting clients through this global pandemic, Madlyn shares with us what made her come to Bottomless Closet in the first place and what keeps her coming back.

What made you want to volunteer at Bottomless Closet?

It was always important to me that the work I did was about giving back and being of service to others who didn’t have a wide band of opportunity. I wanted to find a volunteering position where I could continue that and I’d been looking at different opportunities when Bottomless Closet came and presented at a community organization I was part of. I liked the sound of the mission which was very clear, as was the material she presented. I also liked that she had come to Harlem which demonstrated the goal to include Black people in the mission of the organization. I said to myself, “I’m going to try this.”

What did you find when you came on site to volunteer?

I remember being greeted by Lakiesha at the front desk who was very welcoming.  I found everything very structured and organized – everyone was on the same page and I had a clear sense of purpose. The other volunteers were very committed to the clients and you could see the difference with the clients as they felt like they’d been heard and listened to. I was very pleased on every level.

Can you tell me about one of your best client moments?

I can think of two. I remember one client who was quite overweight. When she first came in, her posture was sloped down and in the dressing room she said to me that she knew we weren’t going to find anything in the boutique to fit her, she really berated herself. I told her to stop, take a breath and to try to be positive. As we looked and found things that she liked, I could see her physical posture change and that she was smiling. As she tried things on, other volunteers complimented her as well and tears came to her eyes.  She looked at herself in the mirror and told me she felt so different, that she’d never felt like this before in her life.

On the coaching side, I remember working with a client who was very withdrawn. She was living in a shelter, was a survivor of domestic violence and her experience was as a housewife and a mother – she really felt she had nothing to offer an employer. We talked a lot about her role as a mother and managing a household – including the finances – and I helped her to connect her skills to work people did in an office environment. At the end of our time together, she had a good resume and she told me that for the first time she felt like she had some value, something to offer.

For both of these women, I took a role in helping them feel differently about themselves. Helping people to find value in themselves is what keeps me coming back.

How has it been volunteering through a global pandemic?

In the beginning, even though a lot of clients were interested in developing their resume, their capacity to really give time to this was limited. I just listened to them and let them know that we’re here for them whenever they are ready.  Other clients have been able to be more focused and when I’m coaching, we talk about what it’s like to interview on Zoom, having to look at ourselves while we are talking. I don’t like looking at myself on Zoom either so it helps me build a connection with clients when we talk about that! I’ve run in-person workshops for clients about going to college and right now I’m retooling my presentation to deliver over Zoom in the next few weeks. I know the workshops are very popular.

Talking to clients during this time has helped me appreciate the level of stress they are under and the magnitude of the challenges they are facing. It has helped me to have even more empathy for their situations – I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to lose my job and take care of children at home – and remember how blessed I am.

What would you say to someone who is thinking of volunteering?

If you are looking for somewhere with a clear mission and purpose, with clarity and structure where you are part of a team and everyone is on the same page, you can get that at Bottomless Closet. Your time won’t be wasted.

You’ll walk away feeling like you’ve done something to help others in a very profound way. It’s very rewarding.