Light Notes

The ‘girl in the closet’ found her mission inside hardship

Keely Brown found her purpose because she experienced hard economic times. The co-founder and co-executive of Colorful Closets holds “a hug in a bag” for needy children.
Keely Brown found her purpose because she experienced hard economic times. The co-founder and co-executive of Colorful Closets holds “a hug in a bag” for needy children. Courtesy photo

Lost dignity. Lost hope.

The thoughts taunted the “thirty-something” couple as the economy began to wobble in 2007, eventually spiraling into the Great Recession. The two watched in alarm as their colorful life unraveled.

“The picture window was in the front and I walked by it anywhere I was going in the house,” Keely Brown said, recalling her shock one afternoon as she looked outside. “My car was gone! There were black tire marks down my driveway and into the street, and I’m thinking, ‘Somebody took my car in the middle of the day!’”

But the awful truth came when husband Brandon returned home at day’s end, their entrepreneurial Amarillo, Texas business -- one they’d worked successfully to build -- was now in free-fall. Keely’s new mint-green SUV hadn’t been stolen, he told her. It had been repossessed.

Dignity and hope wavered.

“That’s when it started to get scary for me,” the college-educated mother of three said, her voice catching as she relived that moment. “I knew things were bad financially, but repo doesn’t happen to people like me!

Little did she know even darker days were ahead. The couple’s self-esteem and faith would be tested.

“You might get the water bill and pay that, but then not have the gas to make the water warm. It was one or the other,” Keely said, recalling how without a constant paycheck, their home went dark. “We’d light candles and the kids would think it was fun, they were so little. It was cold without electricity and so we’d bundle up.”

From the outside looking in, things appeared normal to most folks living in their neighborhood. Providentially, right next door was a distant older cousin and in the same block, a good friend who were aware of the struggles. Their kindnesses spoke volumes about loving your neighbor.

“He allowed us to fill up a couple of buckets a day from the hose, and plus I had milk jugs. That way I was able to flush toilets, things you don’t think about. If your water doesn’t work, it doesn’t just mean you can’t turn the water on,” the mother of an infant, toddler and 4-year-old said, thinking back to the luxury of washing baby bottles or sticky faces and hands. “We went down the street at times to shower – my friend was very unconditional. When kids are little they all want to bathe together, it’s a swimming party,” Keely said, counting it as a blessing.

The kitchen pantry dwindled. Cupboards emptied of household necessities. Closets no longer held diapers, only little ones’ clothing, quickly outgrown. The loss of their home lay on the horizon.

Dignity stumbled. Hope remained.

“My survival on horrible days when I should have been losing my mind, I felt God’s peace. It was so tangible, I couldn’t deny it,” Keely said, reflecting on her deep faith that sustained her through hard times.

Times when she humbly accepted gift cards. Times when “respectable” friends walked away. Times when marriage held fast with a fragile thread.

“It’s what woke me up,” Keely said, retelling how, ultimately, the family-of-five lived for four years with her parents until Brandon’s business was back on its feet. “What do people do in this position if they don’t have a safety net, a healthy family they can fall back on?”

That very question opened this mother’s heart to see need in her community with knowing eyes, often using her household money to help once her life was normal again. But it was within the walls of her children’s school, a place where poverty sat side by side with upper middle-class kids, that she saw an even clearer picture.

“Little boys from refugee homes show up in what are clearly girls’ jeans because they have pink rhinestones on them, or they’re 3-inches too short. And you have the single mom who’s struggling,” Keely said, noting the HUD housing nearby. “At our school, if you’re economically less than the norm you stick out like a sore thumb. That haunted me as we started a new life, and I wanted to help because I knew what it felt like.”

Memories that propelled Keely forward to find a solution and her God-given purpose. Realizing there were few resources for kids to get free clothing, and “all our friends sitting on piles of stylish good clothes that need purpose,” it was a match made in heaven.

“Everyone’s cleaning out closets and they were purging and dropping it off on our porches. I’d come home and there’d be 20 bags on our porch at a time,” Keely said, reminiscing how she and longtime friend Lindsey Wing clearly saw their mission. “We studied ‘Nonprofit for Dummies’ and it was so simple, literally for dummies,” she said, laughing. “We can so do this!”

By the summer of 2016, Keely and Lindsey had launched the nonprofit Colorful Closets (colorfulclosetsama.org) as co-founders and co-executive directors. Together the two young women create “with a lot of thought” ten gently-used capsule wardrobes packed in Colorful Closets bags, including new underwear and full-size toiletries for each child in need. A “hug in a bag” for students selected by schoolteachers and counselors who distribute them.

Remarkably, what began as clothing eight kids a week, now clothes 30 kids a day in their busiest seasons.

“We only keep the best of the best clothes. We don’t keep the one that’s really, really cute, but it has a teeny, tiny hole,” Keely said, explaining that the sorted items are washed by volunteers or businesses in town. “A lot of these kids in our community are in distress and neglected, or some of them are just in a hard place like we were and just need some help, a little boost for a little bit. It doesn’t mean they don’t have style.”

Style that arrives in a gift bag full of dignity, hope … and a lot of God’s love.

Lucy note: Keely Luginbill Brown is my niece. I hope her story will encourage anyone who finds life upside down. God can bring good out of the darkest times. (Romans 8:28)

Lucy Luginbill is a syndicated Tri-City Herald columnist, religion editor and career public television producer and host. Her popular Light Notes column reflects inspirational and faith-focused stories. She’s been working in journalism for more than 30 years.
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