Holiday giving: Blankets under the Burnside Bridge
Bob Dalton, the founder and chief executive officer of Salem-based Sackcloth & Ashes, is on a mission to donate 1 million blankets to homeless shelters across the country by 2024.
Thanks to a recent visit to Portland, he is about 500 blankets closer to that goal.
Using his business, which manufactures and sells blankets made from recycled materials, to provide some comfort to those experiencing homeless is more than just a feel-good effort for Dalton. It's personal.
Dalton was raised by a single mom who had two college degrees and worked steadily in the restaurant business. As he became an adult, he would see homeless people and wonder why they weren't working.
"I was the guy who would drive by and mutter under my voice, 'Get a job,'" he said.
Then, in 2013, a series of blows left his mother homeless and living on the streets.
"It completely changed my paradigm about homelessness," Dalton told the Business Tribune. "Her journey inspired me to call local homeless shelters and ask what they needed, and they said blankets."
At the time, Dalton was working for a nonprofit, a career path he had long envisioned for himself. But the information from the homeless shelters sparked an idea for a business called Sackcloth & Ashes that would make and sell unique blankets. For each blanket sold, the company would donate a blanket to a homeless shelter.
Dalton launched his business with a sewing machine and a roll of fabric, but quickly learned his sewing skills left much to be desired. So, he found a woman to make the blankets, which freed him up to start shopping around the company's products. Out of 200 shops he approached, 20 of them agreed to add the blankets to their inventory.
He also created an online storefront, tapping photographers to take pictures of the fast-growing line of blankets. In June 2014, Sackcloth & Ashes went live online.
At the time, Dalton's only business plan consisted of posting once a day on the company's Instagram account. Five months later, in November, Instagram emailed him and asked to promote Sackcloth & Ashes to the 42 million followers on the social media giant's account.
"They posted the day before Black Friday and our (Instagram) account blew up," Dalton said. "Overnight, we ended up with 20,000 followers."
That social media experience put Dalton in contact with some of the best content creators in the world, who helped him grow the Sackcloth & Ashes brand over the next four years. The company now offers several lines of blankets, all made with fabric made from recycled materials. Sourced in Florence, Italy, the fabric is shipped to Sackcloth & Ashes' facility in Salem, where sewing and order fulfillment is handled. The company currently has 12 employees, including many refugees, in Salem — along with eight in other locations.
In 2018, four years after it opened, Sackcloth & Ashes launched its first major campaign, Blanket the United States. The goal of the campaign is to donate 1 million blankets to homeless shelters across the country by 2024, which will be Sackcloth & Ashes' 10th anniversary.
To hit that goal, Dalton and his staff have started a corporate giving effort that allows companies to purchase quantities of blankets to give to employees and customers, with an equal number of blankets then donated to homeless shelters in their areas. Capital Subaru in Salem, for example, purchased a total of 7,500 blankets and plans to place a blanket in each new vehicle sold, according to Dalton. Other companies supporting the corporate program include Churchill Mortgage, which has offices in Oregon, Washington and California; Starbucks; Sotheby's; and Cost Plus World Market.
Dalton also has connected with a growing list of celebrities with nonprofit foundations focused on philanthropic giving that are now supporting Sackcloth & Ashes' mission. One of those connections, for example, is with SixDegrees.org, a charity started by actor Kevin Bacon that connects people and worthwhile causes.
To date, the Blanket the United States campaign has resulted in the donation of 100,000 blankets, leaving 900,000 more to go. Dalton is committed to personally helping deliver the blankets, handling drops across the country with a cadre of volunteers.
For the Dec. 5 Portland blanket drop, which was coordinated with the assistance of Oregon Harbor of Hope, Dalton and volunteers handed out hundreds of blankets at an event called Night Strike. Held Thursday nights under the Burnside Bridge, the community gathering brings together local organizations and volunteers who provide Portland's homeless residents with haircuts and shaves, food, shoes, and changes of clothing.
Since he started Sackcloth & Ashes, Dalton said his mother has found housing and is working toward a job in the nonprofit sector. Dalton and his wife, meanwhile, have relocated to Southern California. Sackcloth & Ashes' headquarters, however, remains in Salem.
Even with the 500 blankets brought to Portland earlier this month, Dalton admits the campaign has a long way to go. But he says he's up to the challenge. He originally planned to limit the drive to 250,000 blankets, but then decided to bump up the goal.
"I said, 'Let's do a million because it's completely unattainable,'" Dalton said. "It forces you to lean in, to truly grow and stretch yourself."
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