About a year ago, Juliet Baker of Belfast visited her sister-in-law in Kingston, N.Y., and saw a ministry her sister-in-law's church was involved in. It was providing people in need with soap and other hygiene items not covered by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.

Baker said she got, "very excited," about the initiative, because she saw that the Belfast area could benefit from something similar.

Around the same time, she encountered Sharron Walsh, a member of the Belfast Rotary, who was working with city schools to provide hygiene products for students who need them, some of whom were being shunned or picked on by their peers because they didn't have access to these items to keep themselves and their clothes clean.

Along the way, the two women hooked up with Judy Beebe and Debbie Mitchell as well, and the steering committee of the Soap Closet was complete. Now, Baker is the organization's president, Walsh is vice president, Mitchell is treasurer and Beebe is secretary. Each brings her own strengths and interests to the group. They have also recruited other volunteers to staff their space at the Belfast Food Cupboard and help with other tasks.

The Soap Closet is associated with Waldo County Triad, which acts as its fiscal sponsor, so that financial contributions are tax-deductible. Eventually it plans to become a nonprofit corporation in its own right, Baker said. The project is housed at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church on Court Street in Belfast. However, Baker stressed that the group is not a project of the church, but is receiving support in the form of storage space for its supplies in the church basement.

The Soap Closet has received financial support from individuals, as well as from Bangor Savings Bank and the Maine Community Foundation. It also got a $2,000 private grant to help get it started, Baker said.

In addition, the organization held a "shower" last September to collect hygiene products, and several local businesses, including Waldo County General Hospital, held a product drive later in the fall that collected 500 pounds of items, she said.

The Soap Closet provides bar soap and body wash, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrushes, deodorant, laundry soap, toilet paper and facial tissues — all items not covered by SNAP. Its main point of distribution right now is the Food Cupboard, based at the Belfast United Methodist Church in East Belfast, where volunteers hand out items the last Friday of the month. It's not unusual to provide items for more than 100 families a month, Baker said.

Food Cupboard patrons may choose three different items: two bars of soap count as a single item, as do two rolls of toilet paper, and a tube of toothpaste always comes with a toothbrush thrown in. Laundry and dish-washing soaps are among the more popular items, Baker said.

In addition, the group has now incorporated Walsh's Rotary project into its mission. It provides personal hygiene products to the Belfast schools for the use of students who need them — the women collect the personal-size soaps, shampoos and other products given out by hotels when they or their friends travel — with the nurses in each school serving as liaisons.

The Soap Closet also puts together starter kits of items like disposable razors, shaving cream and other personal supplies for men at the Maine Coastal Regional Re-entry Center.

And starting in February, it will be distributing hygiene products at the Northport Food Pantry on the last Wednesday of the month, and the Searsport Food Pantry the third Saturday of the month. Each of these locations will be staffed by volunteers in the respective towns, preventing the steering committee members from spreading themselves too thin.

In order to simplify the process of transporting the items to the farther locations, Baker explained, food pantry patrons in Northport and Searsport won't get to choose what they want. Instead, the group will make up bags with three different items to hand out each month. So, one month it might be a quart baggie of laundry powder, a bottle of shampoo and two rolls of toilet paper, and the next it might be a bottle of dish-washing liquid, some body wash and a tube of toothpaste.

Even though the women shop at local stores, look for bargains and buy in bulk, the Soap Closet has operating expenses of $12,000 to $15,000 a year, Baker said, and it is preparing to apply for some grant funding. Volunteers and contributions are always welcome, she added.

In closing, Baker said she's really happy to have such good colleagues to work with on this project. "I feel so grateful that we have these four people," she said, referring to the members of the steering committee.