Smalls for All Supplies a Growing Number of UK Organisations

| Rachel Berry

We talk about poverty more than we used to. What was once considered something that happens elsewhere is now undeniably a part of everyday life in the UK, for a growing number of families. And West Lothian-based charity Smalls for All (Smalls) can trace the line of this change from when it was founded as an African aid organisation in 2010, to when it became clear that the need was just as great in the UK in 2019. 

That year, Smalls – a charity that collects new pants and new and gently worn bras for people in poverty – was getting more requests from UK organisations. “Food banks were appearing more regularly, and there was a lot more talk about poverty,” says Smalls Founder Maria Macnamara MBE. “We now supply to school uniform banks across Scotland – Edinburgh, Fife, Airdrie, Coatbridge, lots of places – where families can’t afford underwear for their children to wear to school.”

The need that was starting to grow in 2019 became even more pronounced in 2020. “When the pandemic hit, things went mental,” Maria recalls. “We were struggling to get donations to Africa because no one was travelling and the containers had tripled in price. But we were sending a lot more donations to organisations in the UK.”

Whatever the reason for the need, the charity’s underlying focus is dignity. “Underwear is expensive and it isn’t visible, so the school uniform banks will opt to supply kids with a shirt and a skirt or a shirt and trousers. That’s where we come in, to supply the underwear for the packs,” Maria explains. “We work with baby banks and with refuges, where women will show up with maybe two or three children and all they’ve got is what they’re standing in. It can be heartbreaking.”

In 2021, Smalls provided more than 250,000 items of underwear to 68 organisations, 37 of which were in the UK. The organisations she partners with support a diverse range of needs. As well as school uniform banks, Smalls’ UK partners include homeless shelters, women’s refuges, and, increasingly, charities supporting refugees and asylum seekers, such as Care4Calais. In African nations including Sierra Leone, Madagascar, Malawi and Kenya, it’s about keeping girls in school, supporting women in fistula hospitals and supplying sports bras to projects offering girls access to sports like tag rugby. 

Maria’s seed of an idea began with a volunteer trip. “It was never supposed to be a charity!” Maria explains. “I’d always wanted to go to Ethiopia, and decided to go for my 40th birthday. I was working in an orphanage, which had no underwear for the children. They were using rags and bin bags for nappies. It was the same all over the country; there was no underwear available at the market. So when I came back, I decided to do a one-off collection of 2,000 pairs of new pants to send to Ethiopia. I’d got 6,000 pairs by the end of the year, and they just kept coming. People were asking to donate money, too, so in August 2010, I registered as a charity to make it official.”

All underwear collected by Smalls is distributed through partner charities and organisations in African nations and in the UK. These organisations contact Smalls with details of what they need, and they then come and collect it or arrange to have it transported. In Africa, the need for underwear could come from cost challenges, a lack of good quality products or a lack of any products at all. In some countries, there’s a lack of manufacturing and you can’t buy underwear in the shops. In the UK, while products are readily available, the barrier is cost.

With pants comes dignity. Maria has seen the life changing difference such a simple gift can make. “We tracked a packet of pants on its journey from the donor right through to the recipient,” she says. “Joyce is a schoolgirl from Kirusha secondary school in Ngara, Kagera in northwest Tanzania. She was delighted to receive them because she told us they meant she ‘could go to school every day, just like the boys’.”

Maria manages a team of 30 volunteers who cover everything from sorting donations to promoting the charity’s work on social media. As the charity has grown, Maria has moved from collecting donations in her home and the summer house in her garden – “we call it the Pantogon!” – to larger premises in West Lothian. “Up until 2015, we’d only been distributing around 20,000 pairs a year,” Maria explains. “After 2015, we were hitting 100,000, 260,000, even 330,000. We have three volunteer sorting days, with different teams coming in those three days, and we’ve got other people that support us with our social media. The volunteers are absolutely brilliant.

“Distribution relies on people being on the ground. We don’t have people in all the countries we work in. That’s why partnerships with local organisations with contacts and transport networks already in place are so important; from a small charity point of view, it’s great when you’re working with people and they’re going out to their project and I know that they’re getting stuff delivered safely.”

Maria says there’s a huge need for donations. “We’re getting more requests for pants than ever before. We have this idea in the UK that poverty is something that happens somewhere else, but Smalls gets very similar requests from African nations and the UK – and while the need has always been there in Africa, it’s on the rise here. We all have the same desires: a quiet life, enough food, a roof over your head, your family and to be happy. Poverty can be a barrier to that. We’re mindful of the stigma of poverty, and this is a small way that we can help. Because the people we support have been through enough.”

Find out more about Smalls for All at www.smallsforall.org

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