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Magic Closet to swing shut after 30 years

Fewer volunteers and less pressing need for it will close a staple for the needy.

For more than three decades, Magic Closet has shod their feet, put clothes on their backs and food in their tummies.

Underprivileged families, making their way to second-floor rooms at Trinity United Church of Christ, have been able to select new children's underwear and socks, hand-me-down dresses, pants and shirts, painstakingly washed and ironed, used draperies, sheets, blankets and even pots, plates, cups, saucers, knives, forks and furniture.

On Sept. 26, an era will end.

Lacking volunteers to keep the community outreach project going and bowing to changing times that appear to make its charity less essential, church officials have decided to shut Magic Closet's doors.

In October, Trinity United Church of Christ, at 1150 49th St. N, will mark Magic Closet's passing during a Sunday service.

But don't expect a funeral dirge, the Rev. Roger Miller said this week.

Rather, tribute will be paid to Magic Closet's long line of volunteers and thanks given for the program's accomplishments.

Miller said furthermore that Trinity, which is undergoing a physical and spiritual rejuvenation, is ready to "transition into different forms of ministry."

The decision to close Magic Closet was months in the making, he said.

"The person who has been leading the volunteers noted that the population it served initially was no longer in need in the same way. Namely, new programs and ministries established since the Magic Closet was founded are now effectively meeting most of the needs that Magic Closet once met by itself," Miller said.

"As that became evident, the sense of passion and need began to lessen on the part of the volunteers, and with the aging of most of the volunteers and the fact that the church had plateaued with a mostly older available population, our new emphasis has turned in the past year and a half to looking at other ways our church can discover and meet the needs of the diverse population in the neighborhood around our church," the pastor added.

Practicality aside, the closure of Magic Closet saddens those who have been associated with its work.

Jane Trocheck Walker, deputy executive director at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, said the agency regularly sent clients to Magic Closet.

"They provided a basic service in an area that wasn't covered. . . . It was nice to be able to send the whole family and it was a straight giveaway," Ms. Walker said.

She added that the Free Clinic, which operates Maggie's Closet, a thrift store that also provides free clothing to the needy, views programs like Magic Closet and Operation Attack, run by Lakeview Presbyterian Church, as partners in helping the poor.

The demise of Magic Closet reflects a local trend, Ms. Walker said.

"It's part of what we're seeing. The aging of the churches. They are running out of volunteers. . . . I think that a lot of our programs that are church-formed are having struggles. It's manpower," she said.

Indeed, Magic Closet's full-time volunteers dwindled to three stalwarts _ Ruth Tracy, Jackie Shewmaker and Jane Gaylord.

Mrs. Tracy has been with the program for more than a quarter of a century and has headed it for about 14 years.

She admitted that it is not easy to let go of the project.

Writing in a recent church newsletter, she explained, "It's an emotional decision for me. . . . It's true what they say about volunteering; it is truly a blessing."

She will miss the families who come for help, especially grandmothers who are raising their grandchildren, Mrs. Tracy said.

"I hug them, and I love them," she said. "They are my heroes."

This week, Mrs. Tracy gave a tour of Magic Closet. Plastic containers of new children's underwear and socks, tiny baby booties handmade by Trinity's women, and racks of used men's coats and women's dresses were stocked alongside tubs of toys and drawers of personal hygiene items. Since its inception, the program has depended on donations from church members and others throughout the community, Mrs. Tracy said.

Magic Closet, which has its roots in a women's ministry begun in the late 1960s, was started by Colleen Hafner, wife of the Rev. Donald W. Hafner, Trinity's pastor at the time.

"It started with a group called (Trinity) Study in Service. We did various projects in the community and the church, and we decided we needed to reach out to the community much more," said Mrs. Hafner, speaking from Ohio, where she traveled this week to babysit her preschool granddaughter.

"It started out small, just with food and clothing," Mrs. Hafner said of Magic Closet. "Then we expanded into financial aid and then into household items. I moved a lot of furniture. A lot of buildings I moved things into are now gone. I saw many a sight I wish I hadn't seen. The living conditions, it was a real eye-opener."

Mrs. Hafner, who headed the program until her husband's retirement, said the ministry was named Magic Closet because "when people needed something, it just appeared."

In a little more than two weeks, the magic will end.

"Whenever you work with a group who just wants to do something good, it's sad to see it go away," Ms. Walker said.

"They certainly will be missed. Really, they lived their faith."