Oxford Open-handed started in a garage
By Don Rush
On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2021, the Huller family of Oxford were home from work and from school for a day of service. They were thinking about how they could serve others. From that day in January came the concept of creating a “clothes closet” for kids in need – Oxford Open-Handed was born.
Oxford Open-Handed is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization we created to help area kids and their families in need while giving people who have the time, talents and resources to help others the opportunity to live open-handedly. Oxford Open-Handed, at its core, is about service to others and loving our neighbors. It’s as much about those helping as it is about those being helped.
The Huller family, Scott and Leigh Ann and their sons Sam and Luke have lived in Oxford for 20 years. Scott is a human resource manager and Leigh Ann is a high school special education teacher at Oxford Virtual Academy. Sam and Luke are both students at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Sam will graduate this May with a special education teaching certificate and begin student teaching this fall.
“For years, Leigh Ann would see kids come to school without winter coats or wearing clothes that were a couple sizes too small. With two boys of our own, we know how expensive it can be,” Scott said. “The cost of new coats and new shoes and all of the other clothes our own boys needed each school year always made us break out in a cold sweat. Not to mention the cost of sports equipment if they wanted to play sports with their friends. So, worrying about the kids she would see, Leigh Ann would put together bags of clothes and drop them off with families – often anonymously – to make sure they had what they needed. Sometimes our boys hadn’t even outgrown their clothes and Leigh Ann was already giving them away. Oxford Open-Handed is really just a bigger, more structured version of what she’s been doing all along.”
By June of 2021 they turned their garage into a clothes “store” for area families.
“Our primary focus is to provide kids with the essential clothing items they need to participate in school and other activities,” Scott said. “We also provide free youth sports equipment. We don’t have regular hours where we are open to the public, but instead have individuals schedule ‘shopping’ appointments throughout the week. This allows people to have a more personalized experience. We have both new and gently-used clothing and youth sports equipment and everything is free. There is no limit – our guests simply take what they need. And there is no requirement to show a need for assistance.”
This past fall the group started the process of moving out of the Hullers’ garage into their new digs at the old Oxford Fire Hall, behind the Oxford Village complex at 22 W. Burdick St.
“For a year and a half, we organized our garage with shelves and totes and racks full of kids’ clothing. We were fine giving up our garage, but it’s a garage,” Scott said. “It was actually part of what made Oxford Open-Handed unique, but at the end of the day it was still a cramped garage and we wanted to provide a more dignified, enjoyable experience. About a year ago, a space we thought was going to be available for us fell through. But a few months later, we met Kelly Westbrook from the Oxford Downtown Development Authority at the first Farmer and Artisan Market and she thought there may be an opportunity for us to utilize part of the original Oxford Fire Hall. Soon after, we were sharing our mission with the Oxford Village Council, who approved us for use of the space. We got into the space in the fall and we have spent several months remodeling and making the space a place where kids and their families can get what they need – still for free – in what feels like an actual store, and not a garage.”
Since opening Scott said they have had over 200 individual shopping appointments that have provided clothing for more than 300 different kids.
“While we mostly serve the Oxford-area community, it’s amazing how many visits we’ve had from places that are up to an hour away from here just from word of mouth,” he said. “On top of that, we’ve had winter outerwear events in October each of the last two years that have provided hundreds of free new and used winter coats, winter boots, hats and gloves to kids in our community.”
They also provide totes of clothes at area schools for kids who need spare clothes throughout the day.
“Many teachers and school administrators reach out to us directly when they have a student in need of clothes – they simply tell us the sizes and types of clothes needed and Leigh Ann and Sam go shopping for them and provide them with much of what they need. There have been a number of tragic situations – house fires, domestic disputes and other situations – where we’ve been able to provide clothing assistance as well.”
Scott said the reactions from the community and those they serve have been rewarding.
“People are very grateful. It’s difficult for people to seek help, so they are appreciative that there is a resource like Oxford Open-Handed for them to come to. The conversations we’ve had with so many of the moms and dads – not to mention the foster parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles looking to provide for the kids – have been so humbling. There are so many people going through so many different types of challenging situations. Some have just hit a bump in the road and need help getting back on their feet. Others have gone through years of hardship. We just try to meet each of them where they’re at and love them, provide words of encouragement, maybe connect them with other resources. Sam and Leigh Ann, especially, are really amazing and uplifting with the people that visit us. They come for the clothes, but I think they all come away feeling loved and seen too – at least, we hope they do.”
They receive new and used kids clothing donations from individuals, area churches, company clothing drives, school building lost and founds, and other charitable organizations, he said. “One of the coolest things has been the clothing drives organized by individuals at their schools or workplaces, or in their neighborhood and even on their kids’ sports teams. These have been great ways to provide new packs of kids underwear and socks, as well as things like new sports equipment,” he said. “Right now, for the second year in a row, we are working with an Oxford Schools Early College student on a capstone project that is raising funds to provide these types of items. It’s great to be able to provide these things but the most rewarding part is seeing a high school student with a heart to serve others in this community.”
What started off as something the Hullers did as a family has now turned into a full-fledged non-profit charitable group with a board of trustees and officers. Whereas the family still runs the day-to-day operation, they have three additional board members who set the direction for the organization and help with the group’s clothing and sports equipment drives, building renovations, fundraising and clothes sorts. On the board are Leigh Ann Huller, President, Jennifer Roop, Vice President, Matt Santala, Treasurer, Sam Huller, Secretary, and trustees Chad Griffith and Scott Huller.
“Our board members are very hands-on and they all share the passion of serving others. They all serve this community in both their professional and personal lives and have given so much time to this mission,” Scott said. “Our hope is that, regardless of whether our family is here in Oxford or not, someone will be taking Oxford Open-Handed where it is needed.”
According to Scott the group is always looking for help. “Oxford Open-Handed was created in part to provide opportunities for people to serve. The remodeling of our new space has been the work of so many volunteers, people using their many talents and giving so much of their time to bring the space to life. Now, we have lots of opportunities for people to help by sorting clothes and stocking our shelves. We will also be creating times where individuals or groups of people can sort clothes and be available at the new space to receive donations. And we, of course, are accepting kids’ new or gently-used clothing donations. We are always in need of packs of new kids socks and underwear and new start-up sports equipment like soccer balls, basketballs, shin guards and baseball mitts.”
To serve or make a donation, people can visit us at oxfordopenhanded.wixsite.com/home. Or, people can follow the Oxford Open-Handed page on Facebook.
The Hullers ask that clothing donations not be “just dropped at the door.” Like appointments to shop, please make appointments to make donations.
Scott made a point to thank the Hullers’ mentor from Kensington Church – Orion Becky Lee, Kelley Westbrook, the Oxford Village Council and Village Manager Joe Madore.
This past Saturday morning, they had their first customers in their new digs at the old fire hall. So, now that Oxford Open-Handed is housed in the old fire hall, is Scott excited about getting the family garage back?
“I’ll tell you how that feels when it happens. Right now it’s still filled with overflow clothes and totes and racks, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve honestly felt the last couple years like, you know what, we have the space our family needs, we can share a piece of our house – the garage – with others. It’s actually part of the joy of serving, of living open-handedly – giving what you have to help others. For some, it’s your time; for others, it’s your talents or even financial resources – for us, it was our garage.”