Student Stories

Small Closet, Big Impact

By Benjamin Perry

When Thehil Russelliah Singh was growing up as the child of Indian international students, her family depended on a secondhand store that served Christian workers and seminary students. “My parents struggled, as many do, just to get basic clothes in winter,” Singh remembers, “We really depended on Repeat Boutique for everything from household items to clothing. I don’t know if we would have survived without it.”

Now the Director of International Student Recruitment and Engagement at Garrett-Evangelical, Singh wanted to pay that legacy forward so the seminary’s rapidly growing international student body has the resources they need to flourish. When students travel to the U.S., they’re only permitted to bring what can fit inside two suitcases—hardly sufficient for what they’ll need once they arrive. For many, this creates an immediate crisis. “Last academic year, I took a couple of students to Walmart the day after they arrived,” Singh says, “Just buying basics was like four- or five-hundred dollars!”

Sam Stanes is a first year M.Div. student who shares his shock when he discovered just how chilly Chicago can get. “In India, our seasons are hot, hotter, hottest,” he laughs, “This is my first time ever experiencing this level of cold.” At first it was exciting. “The first snowfall I saw, I was like a child again,” he says with a smile, “But I wasn’t ready for how the wind passes through your body.” Friends told him he needed to get a warmer coat than the light jacket he brought with him. “I was broke, I couldn’t afford a jacket!” he confesses, “I needed to spend money on grocery shopping and medical insurance, it was a big challenge to get winter gear.”

To meet this pressing need, Thehil Russelliah Singh created Eliza’s Kitchen & Closet. Named for Garrett-Evangelical’s founder Eliza Garrett, the program is a community-sourced free-store operating out of the campus bookstore, where students can “shop” for the clothing, and housewares they need. “There were people sitting in our classrooms who were skimping on food because they needed to buy a winter coat,” Singh says animatedly, “But we have all these resources within the seminary! So now, we’ve got faculty, staff, and students who donate their household items and clothing. Our community is taking care of our community.” And it’s working: “After Eliza’s Kitchen and Closet, I was able to get five jackets!” Stanes says with delight, “I’m so happy now.”

Singh is quick to note that the precarity in which many international students find themselves has nothing to do with a lack of resourcefulness. “Why are they vulnerable?” Singh asks pointedly, “They can’t work off campus. They can’t work for more than 20 hours. Our systems place them in those vulnerable positions.” Poverty is no one’s fault, but it is everyone’s responsibility. “We don’t have control over all of that, just like we don’t have control over U.S. visas,” Singh says, “But what we do have control over is treating international students not as charitable projects, but as people who contribute so much to our learning community.”

Indeed, Eliza’s Kitchen & Closet is just a small part of a renewed emphasis on building global partnerships at Garrett-Evangelical that has seen international student enrollment increase to over 20% of Garrett’s student population, and that number is only expected to rise. “We can’t just bring them over and not take care of them,” Singh says. But connecting international students with resources isn’t only meeting their physical needs, it’s strengthening the entire community. “A lot of staff and faculty showed up at the International Student Christmas Party,” Singh shares, “because there’s an interest in what’s going on with international students and how they are doing.” Jesus’ call to be a global church cannot be separated from the need to develop personal relationships across national boundaries.

Indeed, this locus of interpersonal kindness has created ripples throughout campus. “As an international student, it’s not always easy for us to interact with students from the U.S., or for them to walk up to us and start a conversation,” says South Korean first year M.Div. student Eui Jin Shin, “But when I’m here at Eliza’s, I’ve had lots of opportunity to talk and meet new people.” What came through clearly was how deeply the community loves their international student neighbors. “Donors asked me, ‘What do you need?’ instead of giving whatever donations they thought we needed,” Shin says, “it made me feel like the people here really cared for us.”

While Eliza’s Kitchen and Closet was created with international students in mind, it is available to anyone in the community and Singh shares that she’s also noticed a number of domestic students using the services as well. And what’s best is that Garrett-Evangelical’s community is rising to the challenge by donating to meet those needs.

In time, Singh hopes to expand the program to serve international students at Northwestern, too. “The dream is for this to grow,” she says, “For it to be an outward facing program, an initiative of Garrett-Evangelical,” to serve the Chicago area. For now, she’s just thrilled to see people shopping. Eui Jin Shin agrees, “It reminds me of Acts 4:32: ‘All the believers were one in heart …they shared everything they had.’ It showed me community that’s always looking out for each other—the practical actions of true Christianity.”

If you would like to make a donation to Eliza’s Closet and Kitchen, drop off anytime in the receptacle provided. Shopping hours are Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 3:00 – 6:00 p.m.