From warehouse to God’s house
The upcoming issue of Dialog, Diakon’s newsletter, features an in-depth profile of Diakon Kathryn’s Kloset, which solicits and stores corporate donations of personal care and related products and then makes those items available to other non-profit organizations to provide to people in need in their community, free of charge to the end-recipient.
In a typical year, the Baltimore-based warehouse ministry touches the lives of approximately 400,000 people locally, regionally, nationally and even internationally.
As part of the Dialog articles, we sat down with Wade Brown to learn more about the Diakon Kathryn’s Kloset founder and executive director.
Why did you name Diakon Kathryn’s Kloset after your mother?
My mother was such a giving person. She was always taking care of people in our neighborhood in Baltimore. I like to say she was a practical nurse before they even had licensed practical nurses. I watched her deliver a baby, I watched her set a broken arm, and if anyone ever had to go to the hospital, she’d go right along with them. She was always there to help people in need, even while taking care of her own 10 kids. And seeing the way my mother gave of her herself, and how involved she was with the church and with serving others, really carried over into my own life. Today I’m just following her example.
You were the youngest of the 10 kids?
I was. Plus I was a lot younger than my siblings, so they helped my parents to raise me. It was a family project. I give them a lot of credit for who I am today.
What were your interests as a young man?
I really wanted to be a graphic artist. I loved to draw and design things, so that’s originally what I went to school for. And because my father was an auto mechanic, I really liked fixing things. To this day I’m obsessed with cars.
How did you get into transportation and logistics?
For some reason I just gravitated to that. It actually started when I was 14 years old and got a job with a local potato chip company. Every day after school, I’d go to work for a couple of hours, pulling the orders for the drivers, putting a little pull-cart at the back of the trucks. Plus I got to eat anything I wanted [laughs]. So that’s where I sort of fell in love with the idea of warehousing and shipping. And it carried over to the military. I was in the Air Force for 12 years, doing transportation management at bases in the U.S. and Germany.
What did you do after you got out of the service?
I worked as a travel wholesaler for a few years. I ran a company in Owings Mills, Maryland, that bought unused airline tickets and hotel space and packaged it for other travel companies. I did the reservations and operations, which also helped with my transportation background. Later I got a job with Lever Brothers in Baltimore, which eventually became Unilever and then Sun Products.
What was your job at Unilever?
I was a quality control guy who examined the product to determine if it was okay to go out the door. All manufacturers have items that aren’t sellable because of minor packaging issues. If a store sees that even one case of the product is off somehow, they’ll reject a whole pallet just to be sure there’s nothing wrong with it. Or sometimes the company just ran too much of the item and had more than it needed. In either case, I had to send these products out for disposal, which was very wasteful and expensive.
How did you come up with the idea of giving these products to people in need?
I’d started doing some community work as part of Unilever’s outreach committee. I was collecting food and clothing from employees and taking them to various centers and shelters in Baltimore. And what I discovered was that I was frequently taking food into a big room that was already full of food, and clothing into a room that was already full of food and clothing. It was kind of crazy. So I asked the director of one aid center, “What do you really need?” He said, “We never get toiletries. We never get toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, lotion, deodorant, laundry detergent.” And I actually laughed. It was like God had put a light bulb over my head and said, “Hey, you’ve got this stuff.” We had plenty of brand new but rejected items to give these folks.
It sounds as if you had a solution right at your fingertips.
Well, there were some obstacles at first. A couple of people said, “no,” when I went to them with the idea, plus we didn’t have a mechanism in place to give these things away. But I kept trying. I took them a list of all the organizations and programs we were already helping in the community and what they needed, and eventually I was able to convince my bosses that we could extend our outreach. I knew that somewhere along the line, somebody was going to be interested in what I wanted to do. And fortunately my facility manager said, “This is great. Go do it.” He even gave me space in the facility to set up the operation. So that’s what I did for the next 15 years at Unilever. It was good for the company and good for the community.
How did Diakon come into the picture?
By 2006-2007, the program had really expanded. We were serving more than half a million people a year in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. So it became much bigger than we’d planned and we really needed to figure out what our next steps were going to be.
At that point, after a lot of consideration and prayer, I decided that I would retire from Unilever in a couple of years and make the operation my full-time job. In the meantime I’d met some folks from Diakon who were running a facility on North Avenue that included a day-care center and they offered to let me use the building’s storefront. So we did a couple of back-to-school and Thanksgiving events there, and eventually they asked about my long-term plans.
I met with the Rev. Daun McKee, Diakon’s CEO at that time, and the Rev. John Richter, then vice president of church relations, and they said, “How can we help you help the community?” At that point I had no experience running a non-profit or doing fundraising. I only knew how to do warehousing and distribution. So Daun said, “We can give you the infrastructure you need.” And they did—everything from accounting to legal services to fundraising and so on. It was the piece I was missing. In addition, Diakon provided significant subsidy to expand and house the operation. I was very blessed to have Diakon become part of the program.
And you reached your goal of turning Diakon Kathryn’s Kloset into a full-time operation.
I did. Another important factor was that since Unilever was already on board—and continues to be as Sun Products—it made it easier to get other companies involved. So we soon had additional manufacturers willing to donate their rejected items. We set up our original warehouse during the last couple of months of 2008 and in January of 2009 I retired from Unilever at the age of 55 and became the executive director of Diakon Kathryn’s Kloset. So actually I never had a retirement! I’m still waiting for it!
Another challenge you’ve had to deal with is the recognition you’ve received for all the good work you’ve done. Why were you shy about that?
I felt like it wasn’t important for people to know who I was. Everybody tells me I’m the “face” of Diakon Kathryn’s Kloset and I always say, “No, that’s not what I want to do.” I’m still reluctant to attach my name to it because I never want it to be about me. But since I now have to go to other groups and tell the story of Diakon Kathryn’s Kloset and what we’re doing, I’m finally learning how to get up in front of people who might be able to help. For me it’s all about God’s grace. It’s nothing I did. It’s where he’s put me, what he’s taught me.
A minister told me once, “You didn’t get into transportation and warehousing because it was what you wanted. It was God’s plan. And everything you’ve done in life was to get you to this point, to create Kathryn’s Kloset.” And he’s right.
But sometimes I still ask, “Why me?” And I say, “Okay, I know what it is.” It’s my mother Kathryn up in heaven. She’s up in God’s ear going, “Help my baby. He’s doing your work.” And every day he’s probably saying, “Kathryn, will you stop? I see him! I’m gonna help him!” [Laughs] I’m always laughing about it because I’m just in awe of what God has allowed me to do.
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