By Sophie Beal:
Phyllis Rowe is not a Gateway employee, but that’s easy to forget as she’s something of an institution around here. Phyllis has volunteered at Gateway for almost three years and manages our clothing closet four days a week, often serving 30-50 people per day. In her words, she’s an “A++ personality,” so naturally she’s gotten the structure and organization of our closet down to a science. On her days off, Phyllis drives all over Atlanta picking up clothes for our clients—jeans, tennis shoes, suitcases, clean underwear and socks, you name it. Nothing seems to slow her down. Clearly Phyllis is an incredible woman. Yet when we sat down for our interview and I told her how much I admired her, she merely replied, “I don’t walk on water. So just tone it down a bit.” Gotta love her.
Where are you from?
I’m actually from New York City. I grew up in New York City, then moved to Massachusetts where I met my husband in high school. We’ll be married 52 years in two weeks! We’ve had four children and three foster children. If you have a home, it’s nice to share it.
When did you first start volunteering with Gateway?
October 2011—it’ll be 3 years in October. I spend four days per week here in the clothing closet and the fifth day picking up clothes.
What did you do before you came to Gateway?
For 28 years I was a federal employee working with social security administration. In my retirement I went to a refugee center. I was quality control and did airport arrivals and reports to the State Department. When they laid me off I stayed as a volunteer and did clothing closet and donation work for them and when I got larger sized clothing donations, I used to bring them to Gateway afterwards for the men. So after I left the refugee center it was an easy transition to just come to Gateway!
What inspires you most about this work?
It’s a joy to be able to meet people’s needs. To have someone come up and say “I need some pants, but I want to hug you first.” I work very hard to meet every person’s needs—job interview clothes if they have a job interview, size 13 shoes if they need a larger size. It’s like a science.
What is the hardest part of this work?
The hardest part is when there’s someone here who might have some emotional issues and doesn’t understand that we’re here to help them, but there’s a limit to what we can do. This life is hard. They’ve had a hard day, they’re cold or wet, and so they’re displacing that onto me. But that’s rare—99% of people are just fine.
I like to think of myself like Burger King: We try to make it so people can have it their way… I try to find what everyone needs and accommodate as many people as we can. I hate to say no. If we don’t have something a person needs, I say “come back Tuesday” and I find whatever it is to bring it then.
Why do you think it is important to volunteer and serve others?
Well, we were raised that way. We raised our kids that way. It’s a good thing to teach your children. I think it would resonate with a lot of people, but it’s not for everyone. If your disposition is good for it, then it’s certainly a nice idea. There are different ways to give, though. Working in a clothing closet is not everybody’s cup of tea, but everyone can find their niche and their own way to help. Try lots of different things, and hopefully you’ll find something that works for you.
What do you do in your free time?
Much of my free time is spent picking up clothes at various stores and outlets and things and shopping at yard sales for the clothing closet. I like to watch old movies, so I guess I do some other things too. I’m a voracious reader as far as papers and current events go. I’m a big political news junkie. I watch gobs of political news. I work to register people to vote and take them to the polls. I’m very conscious of the political necessity of getting things done so it trickles down to the homeless in terms of food stamps, places to live, and things like that.
If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?
We are here to make the world a better place. If you make that your mantra, things will fall into place. You can do it in your milieu—using your gifts, in the best way you can—and you’ll find the internal reward is just wonderful. If you find your niche and what makes you happy about giving, it will make you feel your life is worthwhile.