- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2000

The scene outside the now-dormant Woodward & Lothrop building on F Street NW is one of hopelessness — the place speaks little of the promise each yuletide season portends.

This year, though, life flickers within its darkened corridors, the glow generating from an annual clothing drive run by members of the city's legal community.

The building provides temporary storage space for Gifts for the Homeless, a nonprofit group derived mainly from area legal firms and associations.

The organization gathers used clothing and blankets and raises money for new apparel each season for the city's less fortunate denizens.

Conjure up — then discard — your nastiest lawyer joke. These legal eagles insist they aren't doing good deeds to smash any images. A few bristle slightly when such a question is posed.

"That's not the motivation," says Gifts president Carol Weiser, a partner at Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan. "This is something the legal community does to give back."

It gives back completely. The all-volunteer group pours all proceeds directly into the cause. The various firms and associations under its charitable umbrella cover the overhead expenses, from truck rentals and deliveries to administrative fees.

Gifts raised $72,000 last year and distributed nearly 40,000 items of new and used clothing to area homeless. The volunteers hope at least to match those figures this holiday season. So far, the group has exceeded last year's used-clothing drive by more than 1,000 bags, netting 2,852 bags worth of warm gear for the three-day distribution process, conducted Dec. 1 through 3.

Gifts has donated more than $966,000 worth of clothing to shelters citywide since being formed in 1986.

The group assembles during December's first weekend, but the process begins in the sticky heat of early autumn as members begin identifying needs, appropriate shelters and law firms to rally for the cause.

Ms. Weiser says her colleagues stick with the program from the first bag of donated clothing to the first smile on a recipient's face.

"Doing the distribution, you get the chance to meet people," says Ms. Weiser, who has been with Gifts since 1991.

Larry Williams, the group's vice president for external affairs and an attorney with the Internal Revenue Service, says seeing the process through proves the most rewarding.

"As we would bring the bags, mothers and children were digging in; the excitement was electrifying," Mr. Williams recalls.

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Gifts began in 1986 when three local law firms joined to buy new clothes for those suffering from harrowing times.

"Their concern arose out of the huge number of homeless people they'd pass [on the street]," Mr. Williams says. "The mid- to late-'80s were very wealthy [times] for a lot of people, but not for others. You had a greater disparity between the rich and poor."

They distributed their goods out of the back of their cars but later employed trucks to shuttle the clothes to and from shelters.

In 1989, the group expanded its efforts to include used clothing in order to reach more shelters. Members turned to a kindhearted wholesaler in New York and forged an enduring relationship. The connection allows them to buy clothes in bulk at competitive prices.

The organization has reached out aggressively to expand its ranks, resulting in about 85 firms joining the cause — a number that has remained fairly steady since then.

The group's legal underpinning happened naturally, but Mr. Williams says leaning on such a rich resource as the city's legal professionals makes sense.

"There are more lawyers in D.C. than probably any other place," Mr. Williams says.

The participants get plenty in return, though, he says, one reason many of his peers return to the program each winter.

"The feeling of togetherness is very important to me," Mr. Williams says. "It would be a mistaken impression to say it doesn't play a role for a lot of us."

Jim Villa, vice president of used clothing, says charity is a tradition in his family.

"I get it from my dad," says Mr. Villa, who estimates he gives about 100 hours toward the Gifts' cause.

Mr. Villa, an attorney at the Department of Justice, proudly says the first three bags of used clothing this year came from his own closets.

Each year has found many other area residents chipping in.

"We consistently get a huge amount of clothing," Mr. Williams says. "The volume of clothing we have is an indication people have confidence in us."

The donations range from new Armani and Brooks Brothers suits to full-length ball gowns and tiaras.

Many shelters serve transitional needs, so their recipients may use the suits for job interviews. The more exotic donations, which aren't as practical, are sold to consignment shops, and the money is used for new clothing.

Nothing is wasted, the volunteers say.

"People will take the clothes and wrap them up and give them out [as gifts]," Mr. Villa says.

That said, shortages typically occur.

"We don't get enough men's or children's clothing," Mr. Villa says.

The annual used-clothing distribution may have wrapped last weekend, but the group vows that fund-raising for new clothes will continue through the holiday season. The group hopes enough money remains at year's end to buy underwear and T-shirts for the homeless come spring.

Though the vast majority of the Gifts group practices law in some capacity, the organization welcomes anyone willing to chip in.

"We're always trying to add associations," Mr. Williams says. "We really encourage anyone who wants to work with us."

As productive as Gifts has been through the years, you won't hear Mr. Villa bellowing the group's praises. He's too busy stacking clothes and digging through his family's closets for more items to donate.

Besides, he says, he feels it's important for those in his field to give back whenever possible.

"We're all very fortunate to be in the positions we're in," he says.

For more information on Gifts for the Homeless, contact its Web site, www.gfth.org

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