Students of Florida’s lowest-income county can now go to school with style.
The Putnam County School District Clothing Closet, which officially opened after its ribbon cutting ceremony on Sept. 30, aims to boost students’ confidence by providing brand-new clothes to students from underprivileged families.
The county’s school district partnered with Dignity U Wear, a national nonprofit organization based in Jacksonville that collects new clothing donated from manufacturers and distributes it to needy families, said Nan Coyle, vice president of development for Dignity U Wear.
The Clothing Closet was opened in Putnam County because of the high number of families at or below the poverty line. The county is currently Florida’s poorest and ranks high among the nation’s most poverty-stricken districts, Coyle said.
More than 26 percent of the county’s residents are living in poverty, according to a study conducted from 2009-2013 by the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
The Clothing Closet acquired 80,000 articles of clothing, which are available to eligible students of all grades and at any of the county’s 26 schools. Dignity U Wear hopes to help up to 1,200 students in Putnam County this year, Coyle said.
The closet project was launched by a $10,000 grant funded by the Frank V. Oliver, Jr. Endowment at The Community Foundation of Northeast Florida, said Mark LeMaire, program director of The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida. Dignity U Wear applied for the grant early this year.
“We heard about this need and this opportunity in the school district, basically, that there were a lot of children coming to school who were often embarrassed by having to wear clothes over and over again or clothes that didn’t fit or clothes that they couldn’t wash and other issues,” LeMaire said. “So this was an opportunity for the fund to try and take a dent at a barrier towards kids’ success in school.”
Coyle said Dignity U Wear partners with more than 250 apparel manufacturers at the local, regional and national level. The organization works with a lot of big-name brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Hanesbrands Inc., Footlocker and Brooks Brothers.
“This is just an effort to improve their self-image, self-confidence and dignity,” Coyle said. “Let the kids be kids.”
Renee Hough, director of Career and Technical Education for Putnam County, said students are selected based on a teacher’s or counselor’s observation of need. Each selected student is provided, on average, with two complete outfits, which usually includes eight articles of clothing. The center offers pants, shorts, skirts, dresses, shirts and undergarments.
The clothing is kept in bins in a converted classroom at the Putnam County School District Training Center, but the closet isn’t open to the public, Hough said. Instead, the clothing is picked up and delivered to the students or their families by Putnam County guidance counselors.
Families with several children may collect a set of clothing for every eligible child. However, careful records are kept and reported to Dignity U Wear to ensure families don’t abuse the program or receive duplicate bundles of clothing per child, she said.
Hough said they haven’t determined how often a certain family can collect a new set of clothes yet, but they want to make sure the clothing is widely distributed. During the winter, the need for warmer clothes may arise, but they haven’t crossed that bridge yet.
LeMaire said that after students spend all summer outgrowing their clothes from the previous year, it’s beneficial for them to receive new clothes at the beginning of the school year. Providing well-fitted clothes can boost students’ self-esteem
, which then encourages them to come to class.
“It’s a community that has a lot of needs,” LeMaire said. “And I think its great when organizations are able to come together to do something they really couldn’t do on their own, and hopefully this improves some kids’ lives. I think it will.”