Meet Peggy Hicks, of the Compassion Coalition of NW Arkansas

APR 25 2024

In preparing for this interview, I put together some Canopy facts to share. Since 2017, when we began partnering with Canopy, we’ve clothed 688 refugees, totaling $75,680.

– Peggy Hicks, Executive Director of The Compassion Coalition of Northwest Arkansas

Can you tell me how the Compassion Coalition got started?

It started with one woman, Twila Butler, from our church who was working at Bentonville High School. She noticed a number of high school students who were not clothed appropriately, so she reached out to our church to start an outreach program called “Tigers Den Locker.” Students’ details would be sent to me, and I would work with church members to purchase their clothing.

In 2011, social workers were brought into the school district, and the students’ needs were reexamined. At that point, I thought the program might go away, but, after speaking to the District’s Director of the counseling program she liked the idea of us keeping the program going. From that point on, we became a public outreach program that worked with school counselors throughout the Bentonville school district.

In 2014, we expanded to the Rogers school district, and as of now serve the four major school districts as well as Canopy NWA, Samaritan Community Center, and Washington County Head Start programs.

How many people are with the organization?

Myself and two weekly, in-office volunteers. We also have several volunteers who deliver the clothes, as well as a board of directors. This year, the board will become more hands-on.

“Overseeing outreach projects and volunteerism, it’s where my heart is, it’s where my passion lies.

Kids will not go to school when they don’t have appropriate clothes to wear. It makes a real difference in their education process.

For Canopy, we essentially clothe every refugee that comes through the program with two new outfits, a package of socks, a package of underwear, and a pair of shoes. We also provide coats when needed. Canopy is the only organization where we consistently provide clothing for both children and adults.

Every experience with Canopy is moving. Knowing the story of what it takes to get Refugee status, let’s just start there, knowing the story of these people’s lives, the idea of them moving not only to a new area but also to a new culture and a new language.

Knowing that they’re coming home to a home and food in their refrigerator thanks to the co-sponsor team, and that we are a part of that, and offering them a laundry basket full of clothes – it’s impactful.

Everything we do is completely anonymous. The work that we do is impactful because it is anonymous.

What kind of impact do you feel that your organization has made in the lives of those you have helped?

Every once in a while, we receive a thank you note from a parent. There was a student who went to the school counselor’s office to show off his new outfit, and the counselor said he was just beaming. So, if that simple act changes his whole day, he’s going to have a great day!

My husband works in the public school system, and one of his students was called to the office. The student left in one pair of clothes and returned in another. My husband knew this student received a new outfit from Clothed with Compassion. He said that young man left one way and came back a changed person. There’s a famous psychologist or philosopher. I can’t remember the name, it might come to me, it might not. There’s a pyramid, and at the very bottom of it is clothing, water, food, and shelter, those are our foundations. Without that, we can’t concentrate on the next levels of the pyramid. There is beauty and power in providing people with something as simple as clothes.

Beyond Clothed with Compassion, are there other ways you are supporting or helping the refugee community?

First Christian Church & WaterWay was a co-sponsor team several years ago,we co-sponsored two families, both large families. We recently talked about becoming a church that helps provide welcome kits, but primarily, we concentrate our efforts on clothing.

Prior to this, were you doing any other work with refugees or immigrants?

No, Canopy was the first organization and real contact we had with refugees and immigrants.

How has volunteering or engaging with Canopy changed your perspective on refugee/immigrant humanitarian efforts?

Clothed with Compassion has done a good job helping people understand the hardships and complexities of  refugees and immigrants. I also think it helped educate people that immigrants and refugees bring goodness to our areas. There are so many skewed perspectives about them, and I really think we have tried to make what we do an educational experience.

We try to promote an organization, like Canopy NWA, that we partner with so people can be exposed to an educational view rather than just feeling good about themselves because they purchased new clothing for a neighbor in need.

It has certainly provided me with an even deeper understanding of why it’s so important to be good to humanitarians. We need to stop thinking about our state, our country, our county, or community as not having enough, because the truth is we have more than enough for everyone; providing for one group of people or another isn’t taking resources from one group to provide for another, there’s enough for all – it is not an “either-or” situation.

Some people argue “we should be helping veterans not refugees.” We can help both; we have plenty. If Clothed with Compassion can provide even one person with a better understanding of that, I think we are doing our part in helping change a cultural view just a little bit.

Could you describe how you go about organizing, preparing, and distributing the clothes?

Right now, our contact, at Canopy NWA, is Kimberly Elder. She sends the family or individuals gender, age, country they’re arriving from, and arrival date. I make an educated guess on sizing based on this information and then translate that into what we call a sponsorship tag. Then I hit the ground running, getting that information out there to the public – on social media or a text group where I ask people to support and sponsor these families or individuals. Sponsors then go shopping themselves and return items to the Clothed with Compassion office, or donate funds and volunteers do the shopping. We have a volunteer, Tina Corbett (she’s wonderful), who comes in on Wednesdays and puts together laundry baskets of clothes, and a rotation of volunteers who come in on Thursdays to deliver these baskets of clothing to Kimberly at Canopy.

What made you decide to deliver the clothes in laundry baskets specifically for refugees?

Because laundry is inevitable for everyone, right? I know Canopy has wonderful resources, so it seemed like it was a nice way to package the items. It felt like it was a nice way to present it but also very practical for them to use.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start volunteering for your organization or support what you’re doing?

First, I would say, just do it; we’re in great need of help. Last year we clothed 810 individuals. We’re busy all the time. When you’re talking about basic needs, like clothing, those needs never go away. Basic needs are needed virtually each and every day and, unfortunately, those who live in poverty are not recovering from poverty, it’s an unending familial and systemic cycle. I know there are children that we have helping each and every school year.  

Our needs as a community project grow every year, and eventually, with community involvement and resources, I hope in the future we can move to the smaller, more rural areas of NW Arkansas. We need far more sponsors, donors, and volunteers to be able to do that.

How many people do you think you have clothed since the start of the organization?

Since 2009, to date we have clothed 5,867 individuals, totaling more than $597,600.00 in New Clothing. One thing I really love about what we do is engage the community in getting involved in the process – sponsorship isn’t just about writing a check, it’s about doing a simple task in an intentional way to provide for one of our neighbors.

I’ll be honest, I struggle tremendously with, and I need to become more engaged with, the local non-profit gala scene so I can network. I struggle with the need that we have culturally to have your expression of humanitarian work seen. It’s one of the reasons I love the simplicity of what Clothed with Compassion does; it’s cut and dry, it’s an unseen gesture. I think it’s important for us to do things for one another without needing a pat on the back or recognition. You just never know; the smallest gesture can have the biggest impact. 

What is the number of refugees you have clothed since working with Canopy? In preparing for this interview, I put together some Canopy facts to share. Since 2017, when we began partnering with Canopy, we’ve clothed 688 refugees, totaling $75,680.

What would you like to add to the conversation? 

Jump in! Get involved! Or at the least – email me, text me, call me and ask questions. Put your hands to work with Clothed with Compassion, or with Canopy NWA, or with another local organization.
Helping others is good for us – emotionally, physically, and spiritually –  it changes us fundamentally.

Have you had a lot of word-of-mouth referrals? Yes, we have. Word of mouth referrals – from friends and family – are the BEST referrals.

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