“The most effective way to do it, is to do it.” –Amelia Earhart—
How many years in a row have you set intentions to begin the New Year that look something like this?
Look familiar? And then at some point life seems to happen, and intentions tend go to the sidelines. Sounds familiar too, right?
At ForeverHer, we love to be inspired and learn from women that are making their dreams, visions and passions a reality. That is why we are thrilled to bring to you our “Women on Fire” series—profiling women that have made exceptional strides achieving what they set out to do! We are eager to gain insights from inspiring, talented and bright women who are leading by example.
Our first “Women on Fire” is an inspirational leader and Founder of Our Closet, Jill Blank Aschkenasy. Our Closet is a volunteer-driven program, powered by JFCS, with the goal of providing the basic need of clothing to vulnerable individuals and their families throughout the Greater Philadelphia region.
Jill is a former Assistant District Attorney in New York, turned stay-at-home mom of four wonderful children, turned non-profit CEO extraordinaire. Through Our Closet, Jill is impacting thousands of lives and families every year! She shared with the ForeverHer Community how she took a small scale idea to building the successful organization that it is today.
FH: How did you come up with the idea for Our Closet?
JA: I founded Our Closet in 2011 in response to a crisis I witnessed that year, a Philadelphia family’s house had burned down, and they were in need of the most basic items to regain stability during an undoubtedly frightening and stressful time. Learning of this tragedy, I wanted to help; I reached out to my network to help this family, and the response I received was overwhelming. Donations poured in from friends, family members, and neighbors to help this unknown family rebuild their home. I founded Our Closet to continue to provide support for families and individuals whose stories remain untold, but still have the same basic needs.
In 2011, I started Our Closet with one partner location and one pop-up location. That first year, Our Closet distributed approximately 15 bags of clothing and worked with 20 volunteers. Today, Our Closet operates thirteen locations with at least twelve pop-ups occurring every month delivering over 25,000 articles of clothing to those in need.
FH: What was the driving force that gave you the determination to make Our Closet a reality?
Jill: When I started Our Closet it was simply an idea and a way to use some of my free time to help make a difference and to give back to the community. I never imagined it would be as well received as it was. The overwhelming response from the community to the pop-up shops was incredible. All of our shoppers were immediately grateful for the service we provided and explained how it was really missing in their communities. This is what made me realize very quickly that this was something that needed to happen on a larger scale—it needed to grow and reach more people.
FH: What were some key critical steps you took to morph just an ‘idea’ into a successful non-profit organization?
JA: Initially, the most crucial step I took transforming this idea to make into a sustainable reality was mobilizing volunteers to help support the mission. There were so many roles to fill between operations, collections, volunteering, finances, technology and PR—people wanted to help and I took advantages of everyone’s skill sets. I was able to create a team of outstanding people who provided pro bono support, with their time and energy to grow my mission and turn it into our mission.
FH: With an extremely busy family life and a passion to serve others; time-management must be a non-negotiable skill, do you have any tips to making it all happen?
JA: Multi-tasking! I have often reflected back on how I was able to build this organization while having four small children at home. Honestly, I recall doing many things at one time and sometimes it did feel as if I was not giving my full attention to my kids. I would even question myself and wonder would they “suffer”? But after speaking to them about that time, what I have learned is that while I am always talking about Our Closet, its mission and its growth; my work around them inspired them to also go out and do good in the world. So, while I was multi-tasking and feeling that typical mom-guilt, I was also sending a message to my children about the importance of balance between dedication to family and dedication to our larger community.
FH: When things get tough or you feel a sense of being overwhelmed, is there something you turn to keep a focused, balanced and healthy mindset?
JA: When I feel overwhelmed I turn to my husband, family and friends. Since the inception of Our Closet Paul, my husband, has been the calming voice telling me it would all work out. My family and friends have been an incredible support and they have often witnessed moments when I was ready to throw in the towel and been there to help me take my next step forward. In addition, I drink a lot of green tea and take a lot of long walks or hikes to clear my head!
FH: What is your ‘motto’ in 2018?
About Jill Blank Aschkenasy: Jill worked at the District Attorney’s Office In Manhattan as an Assistant District Attorney. She was in the Domestic Violence Unit and prosecuted mostly crimes of this nature. She has more recently volunteered at The Temple University Law School Innocence Project reviewing applications from inmates who have exhausted all their legal remedies and are seeking exoneration by special appeal. She has served on many advisory committees and Boards. She is currently a member of the Board of Directors of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Greater Philadelphia. She has served as a member of the Advisory Board to Earth Force, a national environmental education program, People’s Emergency Center and LIFT-Philadelphia, an anti-poverty agency. She is the Founder and Advisory Committee of Our Closet, a program that provides free clothing to needy and underserved Philadelphians. She was honored to receive the UpLifting Award from LIFT-Philadelphia in 2014 for her work with Our Closet and LIFT. She graduated from The University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1992 and Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York City in 1995. She is married with four children and lives in Haverford, PA.