By: William Morris
October 31, 2017
It costs the Steele County Clothesline $45 dollars to provide clothing, bedding and other household necessities to one person for one year.
That might sound like a good deal at first. But when done at scale — this year, the Clothesline is serving 994 families, encompassing more than 2,800 individuals and 1,300 minors — that amount adds up fast.
“We serve a variety of people in a variety of life situations,” Executive Director Maureen Schlobohm said. “A lot of people have jobs, both parents work but they can’t make enough to make ends meet. By shopping here and getting back-to-school items for free, they’re saving money to use for other household expenses, whether it’s medical or transportation or paying rent, whatever it may be.”
The Clothesline, which shares a building on the south end of town with the Steele County Food Shelf, dates its operations back to 1963, when it was opened by the Owatonna Women’s Club to support the students at the Owatonna State School at West Hills. That purpose has grown and changed dramatically in the decades since.
“At some point, and I don’t know the exact date, Steele County took over from the women’s club, because the women’s club couldn’t handle it anymore,” Schlobohm said “When the county took over, it got to be more than the county could handle, so at that point, they created the nonprofit and got a board of directors.”
That was in 1997, and the Clothesline, now a separate 501(c)3, opened in its current location in 1999. Stocked almost entirely with community donations, it offers customers necessities ranging from toothpaste to toasters to pillowcases. Their main offering, though, is clothing.
“All our familiess have to register to shop here. They fill out an application once a year. Every January, everyone re-registers,” Schlobohm said. “They have to fall under 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, and be a Steele County resident. Every family receives a certain number of items based on family size each month, so we do limit what families can have.”
This year the Clothesline has more families registered than ever before, and this time of year — from back to school shopping into the beginning of winter — is the busiest, Schlobohm said. In addition to its normal offerings, the Clothesline does a special collection for winter coats. It also has toys and other items suitable for Christmas shopping, although this year Schlobohm isn’t sure where they’re going to put them.
“Right now we don’t have storage, so it’s a problem to take things we can’t put out right away,” she said. “Space is a big issue.”
In her two years as executive director, Schlobohm has overseen several changes. The organization gets wonderful community support in terms of donated items, Schlobohm said, but despite funding from local foundations and corporations, often doesn’t see the same level of support financially. To help fill that need, the Clothesline introduced a new fundraiser, Come Fly With Me, that will return for the second year in January. Attendees will purchase tickets to “visit” several regions of the country, as set up at the Owatonna Country Club, partaking in different foods and beverages and filling out passports to earn raffle tickets.
The physical building has seen recent changes. This fall, the Clothesline and Food Shelf used grant funding to remove an interior wall and create a joint front desk for the two organizations.
“That’s really exciting for us,” Schlobohm said. “We’re sharing staff, we’re sharing volunteers.”
Schlobohm says it worries her to see the number of families in need creep up year after year, and the organization can struggle to keep up. The Clothesline is always in need of men’s clothing and kitchen necessities, she said, and with winter coming on, blankets and bedding are always in short supply.
“Bath towels are something we can’t seem to keep in the store,” she said.
Every day, Schlobohm says, she sees a wide cross-section of the community walk through the doors, ranging from the homeless population to part-time, low-wage workers to the temporarily unemployed to those struggling with mental illness. But whatever their challenge, whenever they find themselves in need, she said the Clothesline is there to help.
“It’s not that everyone uses these services all year long, every month, but we hope they’re being used as needed,” she said.
William Morris got his start in the newspaper trade as a recurring editorial intern in Wisconsin and has been writing about business, government and crime at the Owatonna People’s Press since 2015. He now splits his time working with the newspaper and as Associate Editor for Forge.