JANESVILLE, Wis. — Donna Anderson put down her cellphone on a recent afternoon and sighed.
"I thought I knew poverty," she said as she listened to the calls for help on her voicemail.
Donna was a single mom who struggled to make ends meet before meeting her husband, Mark Anderson.
But nothing prepared her for what she sees every week as executive director of Acts of Kindness, a Janesville charity providing free clothing, linens and basic household items to the poor.
"What we are seeing here is extreme poverty," Donna told The Janesville Gazette. "People are struggling just to survive. I don't think the majority of people in our community realize how big the need is."
At a time when the economy is strong, many of Donna's clients are living in dire situations.
"If you are in corporate America, you think things are moving along, and they are," Donna said. "But there is a forgotten segment of people."
Like so many nonprofits, Acts of Kindness has seen no slowdown in the number of people seeking help.
So far, the charity has assisted about 500 individuals and families this year, up from 400 in 2018.
Some are in crisis. Some are working two or more jobs. Some are homeless or have just been released from jail.
"I'm trying to get to people with the highest needs," she said. "But it's never ending."
After the first snowfall in late October, a woman wearing flip-flops came in seeking shoes. A man living in his car needed a warm coat. Another client walked into the small building on the city's south side, sat down and sobbed.
Donna and Mark, who volunteers at the charity, offer a caring ear and a prayer of hope with each shirt and pair of socks they give away.
Acts of Kindness gets referrals from many sources, including ECHO, House of Mercy and the Salvation Army.
Recipients must qualify to get help.
Donations of clothing, household items, dishes and books come from several sources, including local churches, businesses and many individuals.
The charity relies solely on private monetary donations from the community to stay afloat.
So far this year, it has taken in about $17,500.
But it needs at least $25,000 just to keep the business operational, which includes Donna's salary of $1,100 a month.
Donna estimates she works about 50 hours a week and has gone several months without pay when funds were short.
She and Mark said the charity needs immediate donations to stay alive and monthly pledges to keep it going through the year.
Part of the community
Shelly Danks started Acts of Kindness in the basement of a friend's house in March 2008. The next year, it became a tax-exempt public charity, and Danks acquired the small building on South Oakhill Avenue to house the charity.
Danks began the effort in the grip of the Great Recession. But she had no idea how many people needed help.
"It was something brewing in my heart," Danks recalled. "I knew God wanted me to do it."
She began by going to resale shops in Janesville to see if the owners wanted to donate clothing to the cause.
"Before I knew it, things just exploded," Danks said. "I had people coming from shelters in Janesville, counseling centers and agencies. … That's when I had an awakening and became aware of such a great need."
Eventually, Acts of Kindness became "part of the fabric of our community," Danks said. "There is not another organization that does what it does. … It's not just about giving away free stuff. It's about building relationships with people along the way."
Donna took over as executive director more than a year ago when Danks retired.
"I couldn't turn the organization over to anyone," Danks said. "It had to be someone who has a heart for people in need. I knew it was in good hands."
Andersons work together
When Donna began as executive director, Mark saw her struggling to keep up with the workload. He left his job at another nonprofit to volunteer at Acts of Kindness.
"She was alone," he explained. "So I stepped up."
Donna never expected to be guiding the charity.
"I didn't want to do it, but I had a dream," she said. "In the dream, I felt God called me. Someone has to care. People are suffering, and they are being ignored."
Both Donna and Mark, who have been married 33 years, said they work to make real connections with people and to create a welcoming environment.
Donna recently received a $500 Social Innovation Challenge Award from Janesville's First Congregational Church. She and Mark will use the money to launch a mobile clothing pantry, possibly in spring.
The truck will go to sites around the county to make clothing and other items more accessible to people without transportation.
"We can go where the need is," Mark said.
Donna planned to take some much-needed time off at Christmas.
She remains committed to the charity.
"When I see what others are going through, it's hard for me to ignore it," Donna said. "I have a home to go to with a warm bed and clothes. I have safety. People who come here do not."
She understands there are government programs to help people in need.
"But they don't take the place of human beings," Donna said. "We have a responsibility to love our neighbor and to be compassionate. We need to get back to giving people respect and human dignity."