“We want to offer warmth and a chance to survive.”
The images of refugees in Lesbos deeply affect him; people trapped in tents, surrounded by snow, unprepared and no hope for warmth. Bas Timmer has an immediate solution to save lives, but needs help to get to them.
Two years ago, Timmer was deeply affected by the death of his friends’ father on a freezing cold night in the streets of Enschede, in the Netherlands. Looking for solutions, he started a non-profit company to produce and give away coats that double as sleeping bags. Dubbed Shelter Suits, they solve a common problem for the homeless and refugees facing extreme cold.
Sheltersuit had a remarkable response in their local area, working with municipalities and organizations including the Salvation Army and Humanitas, individuals and businesses. They built up a regular roster of volunteers including refugees, homeless, interns and men and women from the labor market to sew the coats. They developed relationships with generous sponsors including Ten Cate, Nomad, 3M and YKK, who donate residual materials to their cause.
There is an overwhelming need for people, and it is a challenge to produce enough to meet the demands. Often, this means a shortage and asking people return them for reuse instead of putting them away. It is a labour of love, with potential for so much more.
Their early success earned them invitations to shows and events including the prestigious Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven. “That really brought us a lot of publicity,” says Timmer, the designer. “Especially on social media, but the suit also appeared in the columns of a newspaper in Sao Paulo, in Iran and on television in Russia Today.”
“We want to be a people factory. That helps people before and after. ”
After the flying start, Timmer is focused on turning his idea in to a socially and economically sustainable business. This year, they have moved in to the supportive community of the Spinnerij Oosterveld, where they will have room to grow. Timmer was joined by Frederik Frankenhuis to focus on finance, and Paul Overgoor as a third party to work with governments. Together, they are creating a new vision for Sheltersuit. Their vision includes putting more shelter suits on the market, in a way that helps them finance paid staff positions. Frankenhuis says, “As a foundation, you do not survive if you continue to give away packs. We should remember the volunteer refugees behind the machines also want to earn….”
Timmer is also exploring options for expanding their line, based on the needs of the homeless themselves. They are exploring technical innovations such as solar cells in the hood to power LED light, or a sensor to detect if a person is becoming hypothermic and signalling GPS coordinates to authorities. “We get questions about Suits for Dogs.” According to Timmer, dogs can be the best friends of the homeless and sometimes, their dog is their only companion. However, dogs are not always allowed in the night shelters. All of these innovations require additional partners to help get the factory ready for larger markets. “If 1,000 refugees are in a camp, you can not come with 50 packs.” Timmer reflects.
Sheltersuit is always looking for additional volunteers to help one day a week. If you are interested in volunteering, sponsoring or discussing the purchase of suits, please visit their website.