By Ted Bordelon
Wire Managing Editor
The Needlework Guild of America (now NGA) has distributed more than 111 million new clothing items to poor and needy individuals in its 125-year history, but you’ve probably never heard of it. And that can be a little discouraging, says NGA’s executive director, Michelle N. Rich-Bonn.
“We always hear that we’re one of the best-kept secrets,” Rich-Bonn said of the Warminster-based organization.
And, there’s a reason for that, explained NGA’s executive assistant Mary Leithead.
“They were always the quiet doers in the background,” Leithead said of NGA’s founders, a group of Philadelphian women who began sewing for Philadelphia’s poor after witnessing the work of a similar needlework guild in England.
While few needleworkers make up NGA’s ranks nowadays, the organization has continued its “quiet” mission, soliciting donations from corporations and individual donors and streamlining them to the local branches of registered agencies like the Salvation Army or the American Red Cross.
“What’s great about NGA is that we give to everyone across the board,” Rich-Bonn said, noting the 170 agencies that receive clothing from NGA based on need. “By giving it to us, we know who needs it most when.”
These larger organizations get all the credit, which is perfectly fine, according to Rich-Bonn. However, a lack of visibility doesn’t help to drive donations and clothe needy people throughout Bucks and Montgomery counties, and the other 10 states in which NGA is active.
Particularly during the winter, when demand for clothing and blankets skyrockets, and when NGA begins its annual winter clothing drive, Mission Stay Warm.
Since its founding, the NGA has always adhered to a strict “new items only” policy, which might seem highly selective for a charity group.
“It goes back to the notion that, ‘Old items pauperize, new items equalize,’” Rich-Bonn said.
Leithead, who began as a volunteer at NGA, said that this motto drove her to take a more active role in the organization.
“I’ve always loved clothes, and the idea of helping someone feel good about themselves is great,” Leithead said. “It’s not that we have to make people look like they’re models, but I think it helps to give them hope for a better day. It’s the whole idea that someone went out of the way and that you’re special.”
NGA accepts clothing, blankets and personal items such as toothbrushes, shampoo and diapers. The group also accepts cash donations online.
Rich-Bonn said that since the Great Recession, donations have slumped but need has increased greatly. The Warminster office of NGA has, in recent years, given out nearly 15,000 items annually, and other regional offices in areas such as New Hope, Levittown, Hatboro and Southampton have seen spikes in demand, as well.
The organization also sometimes prepares care packages for “emergency response” cases.
“If we’re alerted by a local government official or agency about a particular family or individual, our board will vote and we’ll do what we can,” Rich-Bonn said.
Rich-Bonn recalled one such case in which she delivered clothes and a toothbrush to a woman who had been abused by her husband and had to run away from her home in the middle of the night to escape further harm.
“Something that we take for granted like a toothbrush made her say, ‘Thank you so much, we’ve needed this for so long,’ with tears in her eyes,” Rich-Bonn said.
Leithead noted that, while it is hard for those who are not impoverished to imagine, the items that NGA provides to the needy often give great relief to the recipients, particularly after catastrophes such as a fire or a long bout of unemployment.
“It may sound silly to think of clothes as an emergency, but it really is sometimes,” Leithead said.
NGA’s winter clothing drive, Mission Stay Warm, is just beginning, and Rich-Bonn said that she hopes area residents will consider NGA when considering donating money or clothing during the holiday season.
“The whole premise is that everyone deserves warmth in the winter,” Rich-Bonn said.
In October, the Warminster branch of NGA gave out more than 300 children’s coats, and Rich-Bonn said that she expects demand to be high this year.
“We give out thousands of items, but there will still be people who need more,” Rich-Bonn said.
To learn more about NGA, or for information about how to donate, visit call 215–682–9183 or nga-inc.org. To drop off clothes at the Warminster branch of NGA, bring donations to 822 Veterans Way in Warminster.