In 19-year-old Emma Rose Shapiro's eyes, Halloween is just as important as the December holidays. "For Christmas, you remember what you got," says Emma, who is studying chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. "For Halloween, you remember what you wore." But trick-or-treating requires costumes, and some parents can't afford to make or buy them. Enter Emma and her Wynnewood, PA–based charity, The Halloween Helpers.
The energetic sophomore came up with the idea in 2008, when a closet clean-out turned up a bunch of costumes she'd outgrown. Her mom, Ilyse, challenged the then 11-year-old to figure out a way to do good with the castoffs. Emma suggested giving them to needy kids, and they reached out to local community service organizations. Next, she and her mom set up a collection through donation boxes in local churches, synagogues and businesses.
A few nights before Halloween, they brought the 2,000 costumes they'd collected to an event held at the Greater Norristown Police Athletic League and gave them out to hundreds of families. The little charity took off. "It just started snowballing," says Ilyse, 50, who works in marketing and public relations. "Those were the two most amazing nights of our lives."
The nonprofit accepts new or gently used (non-gory and non-adult-themed) costumes of any size, for any age. Ranging from Darth Vaders to princesses to Buzz Lightyears, they come from companies like the Cartoon Network as well as individual donors. Last year, The Halloween Helpers extended its reach beyond Philly, sending donations to places like The Children's Museum of Phoenix and the Long Island Women's Empowerment Network.
Latisha Brown-Swans, a coordinator at Lutheran Settlement House's Jane Addams Place (which provides housing and services to homeless women and their kids in Philadelphia), says the charity has helped children there for the past few years. Delighted kids dress up for shelter parties, dancing to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," and sometimes trick-or-treat outside. Mom Gwendolyn Hagen's recent stay was over Halloween, and her son Isaiah, 12, was thrilled to receive a Ghostface get-up (based on the movie Scream). "He was very grateful," says Gwendolyn.
More to Come
The all-volunteer charity has helped nearly 5,500 children, collecting between 1,000 and 1,500 costumes annually. Now that Emma is pursuing her degree, Ilyse runs the day-to-day operations. However, Emma hopes to start collecting in her college town of Pittsburgh. "It's so much more than just dressing up for Halloween," says Emma. "It's about developing self-worth and being able to participate in a fun community ritual."
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