A month ago Anita Ruggles gave away $30,000 of brand-new children's clothing. Good quality, name-brand products. No factory rejects or seconds. Some questioned her sanity.
"They looked at me like there was a catch, like we were stark, raving mad," said Ruggles, 36, the effervescent owner of six Washington area clothing stores named Anita's Kids Place. "There was one priest in D.C. who thought I was a weirdo, like I was cuckoo or something. The attitude was like, 'Hey, nobody gives you nothin' for nothin'.' "
Sandra S. Lowe, head of the Fairfax County Department of Community Action, said she was one of the skeptics. "I wondered if it was purple and fuschia clothing that nobody wanted," she said.
The donation last month wasn't Ruggles' first charitable act. Despite the general disbelief of local bureaucrats too flabbergasted to take advantage of her initial offers, Ruggles has been giving away top-quality new clothing to some of Northern Virginia's poorest children for about a year. This past year she said she gave away in excess of $60,000 in new clothing.
The local officials now are taking her gifts seriously. Two weeks ago, Fairfax County opened the first of three planned clothing centers, now stocked with clothing from Ruggles.
Social workers say the center, located off Rte. 1 in the Mount Vernon area, will provide children -- most of whom must qualify by proving their families have an income level of less than $10,000 annually -- with new, not hand-me-down, clothing.
Almost as important, said Ruggles, the children will get to select the outfits they want. This lends a sense of self-respect and dignity to the children in the program, she said.
"I've never heard of anything like this," said Lowe. "This is not something you do once to relieve your conscience. It's an ongoing program to clothe the poor."
Ruggles has sent packages of free clothing -- $1,500 here, $800 there -- to groups across the country. At Halloween and Christmas parties last year, she watched in delight as indigent children -- some, she says, who skip school in shame over their dirty clothes -- scamper through the racks, choosing what they fancy.
"This was like a dream," she said. "You got to see these kids come in -- some of them dressed like little ragamuffins, a few smelling terribly of urine. They had nothing clean. These kids are, like, sad. You should see these kids who showed up in underwear. It broke your heart. There's no reason for these kids to suffer."
Ruggles and Fairfax officials plan to channel the clothing to children who come from the county's scattered pockets of poverty. The county has more than 600,000 residents, 45,000 of them in households with incomes below $10,000 a year.
County board Chairman John F. Herrity, who has helped Ruggles with her plans, is scheduled to commend her for the second time in a year today. Said Lowe: "Everybody paints her as the picture of a saint."
Ruggles has faced obstacles elsewhere. When she approached officials in the District and Alexandria with her scheme last year, Ruggles said she got little help. Finally she approached Vance Wisdom, the youth service supervisor for the Fairfax County Department of Recreation. Wisdom recognized the potential of Ruggles' generosity.
"Why no one jumped on [her offer], I don't know," said Wisdom. "Anita is a special person. She is truly a giver. She has no problem in taking the money she is making from her stores and giving it back to the community. We need more Anitas in the world."
Ruggles herself is working on finding them. The clothes she has given to the county are not enough to supply all the needy families who could use the first clothing center in Mount Vernon, let alone the two others planned for the Reston and Baileys Crossroads areas. So far, Mount Vernon has taken just a handful of children, referred from various social service agencies in the county. In fact, said Lowe, if the new clothing center were opened to all the needy children in the county, each of whom would be entitled to two outfits and a Washington Redskins T-shirt, the clothing Ruggles has donated wouldn't last a week.
This week, the county is sending out letters to 200 clothing retailers it hopes will follow Ruggles' lead. Ruggles and her team of volunteers -- some employes, some friends -- will follow up the letters with telephone calls to the retailers.
"I'm a retailer," said Ruggles, "I don't know about rules and regulations. All I know is I want to satisfy the needs of these children.
"I guess I'm selfish -- I love seeing these kids get things. You got to see the looks in their faces. To know that maybe there's a shot at their being warmer this winter, or maybe there's a shot at them feeling better about themselves at school."