National Public Radio last week visited a market in Nairobi, Kenya where used clothing donated to charities in the U.S. was on sale. Among the wares spread out on horse carts were T-shirts from a cancer fundraiser, a weightlifting competition in Montana and one that was apparently a party giveaway from "Jennifer's Bat Mitzvah" in November 1993.
After it aired the piece, NPR’s Planet Money asked the Internet to step in and try to track down the owner of the “Jennifer” T-shirt, which had a nametag for Rachel Williams ironed on.
Within the day, a blogger for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) found the original owner of the shirt who called the coincidence “crazy.”
Adam Soclof of JTA described his efforts to find Jennifer and Rachel – who were likely 13 years old in 1993 - which included “Facebook sleuthing” and “pinging the wrong Rachel Williams a couple of times.”
Pretty quickly, he found Rachel Aaronson.
When he approached her with an inquiry, she answered, “It is my shirt! Williams is my maiden name. The bat mitzvah girl is Jennifer Slaim, she is married now. That picture is crazy!”
Rachel explained that her mother donated the shirt to the charity Purple Heart some five years ago.
Asked how she felt seeing her shirt end up in Africa, she said, “Three thoughts. First, I’m glad the shirt is getting used instead of sitting in a drawer or landfill. Second, I feel a bit guilty that some people have so little that they might end up wearing a silly shirt from my childhood. And third, I’m impressed that the name tag my mom ironed on for overnight camp has lasted this long!”
“I would love for the shirt to continue to be worn, to continue to be used,” Rachel later told NPR. “I hope whoever's wearing it is wearing it in good health and happiness.”
JTA then reached out to Jennifer who originally printed the T-shirts for her bat mitzvah 20 years ago in Troy, Michigan. “It was kind of insane to be honest. I just couldn’t stop laughing. It’s amazing how big the world is and how small it is at the same time.”
The long journey Jennifer’s T-shirt made isn’t that unusual. NPR reported: "Charities like Goodwill sell or give away some of the used clothes they get. But a lot of the clothes get sold, packed in bales and sent across the ocean in a container ship."
"The U.S. exports over a billion pounds of used clothing every year — and much of that winds up in used clothing markets in sub-Saharan Africa," NPR added.