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Zoo-Nye Closet opens its doors

Felicia Pennell knows what it’s like to fall through the cracks.

Over the past 17 years, the single mother says she’s earned just $3 to $100 above the monthly income limit to receive governmental assistance, and has had to rely on food banks to make ends meet.

Now, she’s started her own nonprofit to help others like herself.

Inside Zoo-Nye Closet, located at 5352 Windsor Blvd. across the street from Pennell’s home in Zuni, visitors will find secondhand furniture, clothes and books. But it isn’t exactly a thrift store, as everything is free for the taking, no questions asked — save for an intake form where those in need can list their name, contact information, number of people in the household and their needs and wants.

There’s also a selection of nonperishable foodstuffs.

“We do not check their income because everyone has struggles and we are here to help the bad times be a little better,” Pennell said. “We do not judge anyone because everyone at some point has started over and had struggles … We do have some stop by thinking we are a thrift store and some will say, ‘May I look around?’ We allow them to look and answer any questions. Most will want something they saw and offer a donation, which we don’t turn down. Any donations taken pay the electric bill and volunteers’ gas to collect the items.”

In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was forcing businesses and organizations to close their doors, Pennell set up a store on her home’s deck and began posting items on Facebook. A neighbor then donated 1,500 pieces of clothing along with some commercial clothing racks.

“I had 32 shoppers and in three weeks the clothes were almost gone,” Pennell said. “This proved to be a greater need than I ever thought.”

For the next few months, she would go to work and come home with a deck full of donations daily.

“My deck and barn looked like a thrift shop exploded,” she said.

Then, another neighbor suggested she rent the building across the street.

“I started my search into the owner and I actually knew her and coached her granddaughter,” Pennell said. “I messaged her and we came to an agreement as the building has sat empty for many years and needed a lot of work.”

The building has housed many businesses throughout Zuni’s history. Its restoration has been a community effort via donations of supplies and labor.

“We need to have the electrical update, which is happening very soon per a big donor,” she said. “We also just had all of the insulation, two freezers, a refrigerator, stove and microwave hood range donated per a big donor. We need flooring but we have been using pieces of plywood over what exist, which my contractor friends have let us collect the scraps from new construction to use. So it is a big puzzle, but we are making progress.”

The Zoo-Nye Closet Foundation received official nonprofit status Oct. 1, 2020. For now, the store is run by Pennell and five other volunteers, but they hope to one day be able to employ paid staff. In addition to running the store, the group delivers food to the homeless in Suffolk and has helped local Social Services offices furnish the homes and apartments where they place families. They’ve also had donors pay for hotel rooms for homeless families this winter.

The store hosted a grand opening April 3 and will host another from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 17, accepting two walkthrough appointments per hour. Appointments can be made via the group’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/zoonyecloset20/services.