Britt Carpenter, founder of the Philly Unknown Project, and Adrienne Bellino-Ailinger, BSN, JD, RN, display a bag full of socks donated by the Einstein Endoscopy Center Blue Bell
Health & Wellness

Outpatient Center Sends Socks to the Homeless

By on 11/03/2021

In the fall of 2019, Britt Carpenter was a patient at the Einstein Montgomery Surgery Center.  Little did he know that his visit there for an outpatient diagnostic test would benefit the Philly Unknown Project, the grassroots nonprofit organization he founded in 2015. 

Philly Unknown provides people who are homeless, near homeless, or in need with day-to-day resources through outreach, education, support and advocacy.

When Carpenter came to the Surgery Center, he was given a pair of socks with rubber treads on the bottom to prevent him from slipping and falling when walking around the center. He was told that patients can take the socks home or leave them behind.

While recovering from his test, he thought about how helpful the socks would be for the homeless people served by Philly Unknown. Clean, dry socks are a precious resource for people who are homeless and can help prevent infections and other issues that can lead to serious medical problems.

Carpenter told Adrienne Bellino-Ailinger, BSN, JD, RN, the nurse caring for him, about his organization and asked whether Einstein could donate the socks that patients leave behind to Philly Unknown.

Saving Socks From the Landfill

Patients who come in for a same-day surgery or procedure wear the nonslip socks for just a couple of hours. Those that patients don’t take home go in the trash bin and end up in a landfill.

Bellino-Ailinger, who now works at Einstein Endoscopy Center Blue Bell, didn’t need convincing to make a case for setting up a program whereby socks from the center would be donated on a regular basis to Philly Unknown.

“I’ve always supported service to others, and donating our socks to Philly Unknown is a great way to reduce waste and fill a need in the community,” Bellino-Ailinger says.

Bellino-Ailinger quickly received the OK from her immediate supervisor, Kathy Lockhart, Endoscopy Center Director, and then moved forward with the endorsement of hospital leadership.

“It was wonderful to get such an enthusiastic response from Einstein leadership. They were on board and offered their support and encouragement,” Bellino-Ailinger says.

The program launched right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in February 2020 and was halted for a few months at the height of the pandemic when the Endoscopy Center had to shut down. As soon as the center reopened, the program resumed.

2,000 Pairs of Socks

Since it started, approximately 2,000 pairs of socks have been donated from the center and distributed to the homeless through Philly Unknown.

Now, patients are asked if they want to take the socks home or donate them to Philly Unknown. They are given information about the organization and how socks benefit the homeless. A large rubber bin was set up with a sign letting patients know that’s where they can place their socks if they’re not taking them home.

 “Patients are really happy to leave their socks behind, knowing that they’re going to such a good cause,” Bellino-Ailinger says.

Wearing clean, dry socks helps people who are homeless year-round. Clean socks prevent bacteria and fungi from causing athlete’s foot and other infections and can prevent or slow the growth of painful corns, callouses and plantar warts. In cold weather, socks help keep feet warm and prevent frostbite, which can lead to amputations.

“Some people who are homeless don’t have shoes, so the only thing protecting their feet are the socks,” Carpenter says. “Bottom line: socks are like gold for people living on the street.”

It typically takes one to two weeks to fill the donation bin at the center with 150 pairs of socks.

Before the socks can be distributed, they must be laundered. Carpenter and his former nurse take turns doing that job.

For Bellino-Ailinger, this is when it became a “family affair.” At the start of the project, she enlisted the help of her three children – daughter Cassy, 16; son Thomas, 15; and Jacob, 11 – who do the laundering and pair up the socks.

“It’s a win/win,” she says, “because the socks get cleaned and my children earn community service hours at their schools.”

Bellino-Ailinger says she likes modeling this behavior for her children and their generation so they see firsthand that it’s important to care for others.  

Compassion Bags

When the socks have been laundered, they’re ready to be included in “Compassion Bags,” which  Philly Unknown volunteers distribute two to three times a week to homeless people.

Plastic "Compassion Bags" filled with supplies to help homeless individuals.
Compassion Bags

The Compassion Bags provide some essential items to help make living on the street a little more manageable and help keep the people healthier. These clear, gallon-size plastic baggies contain hygiene products such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb, wet wipes, a poncho, a T-shirt, a bottle of water, a sweet snack, and a protein bar. They also include seasonal items such as sunscreen in warm weather and hand warmers in cold weather.

In addition, when Philly Unknown has a supply, the bags include a harm-reduction item such as Narcan, a medication that’s used to counter the effects of opioid overdose.

Each week the items in the bags vary depending on what donations the organization receives. Most supplies come from individual donations. Philly Unknown has a wish list on Amazon that prospective donors can use to order items and have them shipped directly to Philly Unknown’s headquarters.

Approximately 200 Compassion Bags, assembled by volunteers, are distributed each week to people on the street. Philly Unknown is based in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, but the organization also does outreach at Love Park in Center City, as well as South Philadelphia – wherever there’s the greatest need.

Bellino-Ailinger’s youngest son, Jacob, believes in the project so much that he organized a drive as part of his Tae Kwon Do Leadership project, collecting toiletries and items for the Compassion Bags. Jacob’s drive collected enough items to fill 118 bags.

homas Ailinger; Adrienne Belllino-Ailinger; and their children (left to right) Thomas, Cassy and Jacob with donated items
Thomas Ailinger; Adrienne Belllino-Ailinger; and their children (left to right) Thomas, Cassy and Jacob with donated items

Jacob ran the drive and assembled the bags with his sister and brother. Then the family went out in the community with Carpenter and other volunteers to hand out the bags.  They saw how hard life is when a person is homeless and how much these everyday items help them to survive.

Founding the Philly Unknown Project was a very personal mission for Carpenter. He is in recovery from substance use disorder, and he says that when he started the organization he was coming out of a dark place in his life. He had spent time on the streets of Kensington and witnessed firsthand how the homeless live and the many problems and societal ills that lead to homelessness.

Carpenter went into recovery and got the help he needed. He feels extremely fortunate and founded Philly Unknown as a way to give back and serve the community.

“I want to be a voice for the homeless and an advocate,” he says. “No matter if someone has a substance abuse problem and is living on the street, they’re still people, and at the end of the day, we’re all the same.”

For more information about Philly Unknown, go to www.phillyunknownproject.org.

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