Rita’s Closet has thrived for nearly eight years, fueled by fundraisers and a prom season that were effectively wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic this spring. But founder Tamara Medeiros remains optimistic that alternative options can help keep the nonprofit, which provides inexpensive formalwear as well as scholarships, going.
Based in TownMall of Westminster, Rita’s Closet hosted an annual Fashion Show and Tea in conjunction with the Carroll County Career and Technology Center for the past five years to raise money. It is designed to be a fun event where people can come together and hear about what Rita’s Closet does, Medeiros said.
This year’s fashion show was canceled due to the pandemic. So the plan is for Rita’s Closet to host an online auction of themed Longaberger baskets filled with goodies to replace the organization’s more traditional way of raising money. The two-week auction begins Saturday and can be accessed at the Rita’s Closet website.
“We’re going to do it through our website and auction them off in hopes that we can create another form of fundraising,” Medeiros said. “Even with traffic at the mall, with all the warnings and people being concerned, we have a lack of customers and a lack of volunteers. I have people who are afraid to work in the mall due to COVID, so I’ve lost my volunteer base.”
Medeiros founded Rita’s Closet in 2012 as a way to honor the life of her daughter, Rita, who died in a car accident on her way home from purchasing a prom dress that spring.
Rita’s family, including her parents and triplet siblings, Emily and Alexander, and older brother, Justin, started Rita’s Closet as a nonprofit by collecting prom dresses and giving them to girls in need in the aftermath of her death. The organization is under the umbrella of the Community Foundation of Carroll County and also gives scholarships to graduating seniors.
“It was one way to start trying to deal with our grief and do something productive for myself and my kids to be involved with” Medeiros said. “It was helpful to have something to kind of focus on that was positive and something to look forward to at the end of the school year.”
Emily and Alexander graduated from Westminster High School in 2013, the same year Rita’s Closet handed out its first scholarship. Now, Medeiros said they hand out at least six every year.
Rita’s Closet is located next to Belk in TownMall and was open from 11 hours per day, four days a week prior the pandemic. The TownMall, like all others in Maryland, closed its doors on March 19 in response to Gov. Larry Hogan’s coronavirus executive order mandating all enclosed shopping malls in the state to close at 5 p.m. that day.
“We reopened, finally, in May, but we missed all of the prom season sales,” Medeiros said. “That’s huge for us. That’s really where we excel as far as making abundant sales, selling prom dresses … we sell them at a tremendous savings from when somebody pays retail in the store for them.”
Rita’s Closet is strictly volunteer-based and Medeiros said most of her volunteers are retirees at high risk. The store’s hours are now limited to six per day and the store is open just three days a week.
The basket auction is slated to run August 1-15 and there are three baskets included in the first round. Each one hold various items, such as a nail salon gift certificate, adult coloring books with gel pens, grilling supplies, Old Bay Hot Sauce, McCormick’s Grill Mates, and other seasonings.
“I thought it would be a good idea to see if we could maybe do a virtual auction so that people who can’t really go out and do stuff can still participate in assisting a nonprofit that needs their help,” Medeiros said. “Given our scholarships, we still had enough residual to do that.”
Medeiros said she and her team will continue to host the virtual basket auction if it is successful, as well as keeping the store and its changing rooms properly sanitized. Every clothing item is quarantined for at least a week, placed on separate racks and aired out before it can be tried on by someone else.
“We’re small enough that we can figure that out,” Medeiros said. “People come in and go to Belk or any of the other stores and they can’t try anything on. They can return it, but they can’t try it on so that makes us a little different.”