Sweaters and Sustenance

john allen with a homeless man

Photo courtesy of Lis Christy.

John Allen ’11 has been reaching out (literally) to D.C.’s homeless population for more than a decade

by Tony Moore 

If you live in a city with any kind of homeless presence, the idea has probably occurred to you that the sweaters and coats collecting dust in the dark reaches of your closets could be put to better use. And you’ve probably made donations of clothing to any one of several organizations that bridge the gap between your unneeded items and people in need.

One such organization, Sweaters and Sustenance, has been operating for more than a decade now on the streets of Washington, D.C., and it serves as one Dickinsonian’s profound extension of his father’s legacy.

The lives of others 

“Things were hard at home—there was a real sense of emptiness,” says John Allen ’11 (political science), describing the period following his father’s passing from cancer in 2003. “And then we thought of how Dad wouldn't want us to dwell on his passing, but to move forward with our lives. And what better way to do that than to focus on the lives of others.”

So Allen—a special-education teacher working for KIPP D.C., a high-performing charter school network—along with his family, decided to make Christmas that year a day of service in honor of the man Allen calls the family’s “rock.” It started simply enough: They gathered all the coats Allen’s father had left behind and brought them onto the blustery streets of D.C. and distributed them to homeless people.

“We could have given the coats to the Salvation Army, but imagine being able to put them on someone who's out in the cold, to show that you care enough about them to make sure they have a warm Christmas,” Allen says of the motivation behind that first year of what would become Sweaters and Sustenance. “That personal touch was important to me. And that's who my dad was also: personal and approachable, and he'd want to help people in this way.”

Engage the cause 

Now the project has wrapped up its 13th Christmas of giving, and Allen, his family and other volunteers—including Allen’s friend Matt Scanlan ’12, who recently donated a box of 30 sweaters—have handed out more than 1,500 coats and sweaters (and 2,500 sandwiches, which were added to the project in its early years). They’re looking to do even more, expanding beyond D.C. into the Boston area and Carlisle, and are eyeing ways to have more days of service in D.C. as well.

All of it is only possible with the help of like-minded volunteers, of course, and Allen is always looking for others dedicated to tackling poverty and homelessness in America alongside him.

“I want to work with people who have similar passions,” he says, explaining how donations of time, money and food and clothing are the fuel that keeps Sweaters and Sustenance alight. “Dickinson is about ‘engaging the world,’ and I’d l love to engage others to help with this cause.”

Those who'd like to get involved can visit the Sweaters and Sustenance website for more information. This time next year, Allen’s network of volunteers and supporters could include Dickinsonians far and wide.

“Thinking about how homeless people are spending Christmas—or not spending Christmas—is why we target that time of year,” Allen says. “We bring them physical warmth, but we also bring them warmth in an emotional and spiritual way, and I think that's where the relationship becomes much stronger.”

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Published January 15, 2016