Reshaping the Church

Loft 181: The biblical boutique

Posted May 20, 2024

by Fernanda Nascimento

Photo provided by Loft 181

Jennifer Whitten, serves as Manager of Loft 181, a clothing boutique for teenage girls, ages 13-18 in foster care. Whitten’s career at Loft 181 is a testament to her continuous dedication to the ministry. With a background in elementary education and desire to build relationships as a tool for her community service. Jennifer Whitten's passion is to change the lives of these teenage girls. Demonstrates a great deal of commitment to helping girls in foster care in Tampa, Florida. Jennifer is married to Philip, One More Child’s National Director of Partnerships, and together they have four beautiful daughters.

What inspired the founding of Loft 181, and who are its primary beneficiaries?

In 2010, God began working in my Sister-in-Law Tara's heart, prompting her to do something for teenage girls in foster care. After asking around, she found that what they needed most was clothing. So, she began collecting clothing and set up in a space at Idlewild Church called the "Loft." At that time, there were 181 teenage girls in foster care in Hillsborough County. Thus, by 2011, Loft 181 was born. Today, we primarily see teenage girls in foster care as well as those recovered from human trafficking.

How does Loft 181 address the critical need for clothing among girls in foster care and those rescued from human trafficking?

When children are removed from their homes or recovered from trafficking it is often rapid, and they are not permitted to gather their belongings. The result is that they are taken into care with only the clothes on their backs. In fact, it is common for us to hear that a girl only has one or two outfits that she is washing daily.

How many girls did Loft 181 serve in 2023, and what types of items does it accept as donations?

In 2023, we served 372 girls and gave away 12,180 items, and this year, we are on track to serve even more.

We take all types of gently-used clothing — shoes, jewelry, purses, accessories, makeup, hygiene items, Bibles. Basically, anything a teenage girl would like, we want to have it.

We take clothing sizes XS/00 - 4XL/24, and our goal is to have the size and style every girl is looking for when they come in. We only accept new makeup, hygiene items, socks and panties, and we are therefore always asking our community to donate those items.

Can you describe the process of scheduling appointments with foster girls at Loft 181?
All of our shopping sessions are by appointment so that we can offer a personalized shopping experience for each girl. We can see anywhere from 1-6 girls at a time.

To schedule an appointment, caretakers or the clients themselves can go to our website: onemorechild.org/loft181. From there, they can email or call us to schedule the appointment.

We try to make appointments as convenient as we can for caretakers and offer slots in the morning, afternoon and evening, both during the week and on weekends

What additional services does Loft 181 provide besides offering clothing and accessories to girls in need?

One More Child has amazing mobile anti-trafficking teams across Florida. For any trafficking survivor who is not already receiving services, we refer them to one of our teams who assess the needs of survivors, connect them with essential community resources, deliver clinical services and provide mentorship throughout a survivor’s journey of emotional, physical and mental recovery.

Each mobile team consists of a supervisor, clinician, advocate and peer mentor, forming a multidisciplinary approach to serving survivors. In addition, we offer diapers and wipes to support our clients with babies.

Photo provided by Loft 181

What role does Loft 181 play in providing emotional support and spiritual guidance to the girls it serves?

At the end of every shopping experience, we spend time in our "Gospel Room." Every girl is given a prayer request card and encouraged to write down anything that they would like us to pray for them about. We keep their cards and pray over them until we see the girls again.

They are also given snacks (often homemade goodies from our volunteers) and drinks, and while they eat, we take the time to share the gospel with them. We believe that what God's word says is true — that God loves them, that He sees them, that He has chosen them and He knows them by name.

Because of that, they can have hope for the future beyond their circumstances today. Above any physical need we meet at Loft 181, we are grateful for the opportunity to meet a spiritual need and introduce them to Jesus. We have seen many girls come to know Jesus in a very real way over the years, and we offer a Bible to anyone who wants one to encourage them as they grow in their walk with the Lord.

How does Loft 181 aim to build trust and confidence in the foster girls who visit the boutique?

We know that many of the girls who come to Loft have been through a lot and have rarely had anyone instill confidence in them. They have built thick walls around themselves because life has taught them they can trust no one.

We have to work diligently to prove that we are worthy of their trust and that we want to give freely, expecting nothing in return. While they shop, we ask questions. We listen and learn to begin building a relationship.

As they try on clothes, we "ohh!" and "ahh!" over how beautiful they are, and it is amazing to begin seeing their defenses come down. By the end of the appointment, it is like they are a completely different person — head held high, excitedly showing us how great they look.

The work done in the front of the store is vital. It begins softening their hearts, preparing them to receive the gospel.

What impact does Loft 181's fitting room experience have on the girls' self-esteem and interaction with volunteers?

Before the girls arrive, we write their name above their fitting room door. It is a sign to the girls that we knew you were coming, and we are excited you are here.

By design, our fitting room only has one mirror so that the girls have to step out to see themselves. This gives us and our volunteers the opportunity to brag on how beautiful they are.

It is amazing to watch the transformation from the time they first enter the store to the time they leave.

Often, it just takes one time coming out of the fitting room receiving instant compliments and applause to completely change their countenance. From there they are much more talkative, and their personality really comes out.

What motivates volunteers to dedicate their time and effort to Loft 181?

Volunteering at Loft 181 is such a rewarding experience. Before becoming a manager, I volunteered for 10 years. To have the opportunity to serve girls who go virtually unseen in our society is such an honor, and volunteers have the opportunity to be part of the solution.

Because Loft 181 meets such tangible needs, it is easy for volunteers to see how they can serve. On paper, volunteers give of their time and energy, but the truth is that we receive so much more than we give — we are blessed every time we have girls in the store.

What challenges do volunteers face when working with the girls at Loft 181?

Spiritually speaking, any time you are doing work for the Lord there is going to be pushback from the enemy. We have experienced spiritual warfare in many forms which can be spiritually draining, but it is amazing to watch our volunteers lean into Jesus and pray through those times.

On a practical side, we see girls with a varying range of physical, mental and emotional needs and our volunteers have to be prepared to show love, kindness and compassion to everyone. Because so many of our clients are very guarded, our volunteers may have to persevere with patience to get them to open up.

How does Loft 181 continue to support the girls even after they leave the boutique?

We make it known to the girls that we are available to them, and many have reached out with a variety of needs. We have church partners that we collaborate with, and when the girls have a need outside of our realm, we help connect with them the appropriate resources.

Photo provided by Loft 181

How does Loft 181 collaborate with One More Child to fulfill its mission of serving vulnerable children and families?

One More Child's mission is to serve vulnerable children and struggling families and they have been doing so since 1904. We like to say that in 2018 they "adopted" Loft 181, and we are proud to serve under their umbrella. Because their mission is so broad, we feel the freedom to say "yes" to meeting as many needs as we can.

Can you describe the role of One More Child in the partnership with Loft 181?

Because Loft 181 is a ministry of One More Child, our operational costs – including the facility and salaries of the managers – are covered by them. They also offer training to better equip our staff and volunteers to ensure we are able to serve our clients with excellence.

How does Loft 181's mission align with the broader goals of supporting foster children and survivors of trafficking?
We believe that caretakers are such heroes. They are the ones who day in and day out provide love, stability and balance. We are so grateful for the opportunity to come alongside the ones they love and provide for and offer support in this way.

In what ways can individuals in the community get involved with Loft 181, beyond volunteering

There are a number of ways our community can support us beyond volunteerism.

Everything in our store is donated, meaning that we are always looking for gently-used donations. However, there are a few items that we only accept new: panties, socks, makeup and hygiene items.

So, we encourage groups who are interested to host "drives" to collect these items for us. One More Child is a nonprofit run predominantly off of philanthropic giving, and in order for a ministry to continue running they must be fully funded. Because of that, we are always looking for churches, businesses and individuals to financially support our ministry.

Fernanda is a Brazilian writer and filmmaker, passionate about finding beauty in everything.