“What I looked like was really important to fitting in,” said Russell, who is now in her 70s.
Clothing can affect how well a student performs in school, how well they focus, whether they are the target of bullying. Russell said she was fortunate to have a mom who sewed her clothes, but not everyone’s mom can, nor can their parents afford the latest kicks or most popular brands of the moment.
Russell is one of four Lake Junaluskans who have pulled together to offer needy children in Haywood County schools the opportunity to expand their wardrobe through a nonprofit called Clothes To Kids.
“We are doing it to help them build confidence,” Russell said.
Clothes To Kids started in Clearwater, Fla., where fellow Junaluskan Payton Adams spends part of his year. Unlike nonprofits such as Salvation Army or Goodwill, Clothes To Kids gives clothing away to students from kindergarten all the way up to 12th grade.
“Everything is free,” Russell said.
Seeing the need for a similar organization in Haywood County, Adams mentioned the Florida store to Russell, her husband Ed, and Lois Beery over coffee one morning last year.
Adams recalled going to an event for the Clearwater-based Clothes To Kids and hearing a girl attest that she dropped out of high school partially because she was embarrassed by her wardrobe, or lack thereof. After connecting with Clothes To Kids, she returned to school and is now in college. At the same event, a father talked about the positive impact of the nonprofit and the hardships he experienced because he was unable to buy clothing for his kids.
“When I heard that one, I knew I had to get involved,” Adams said.
Not long after, they got to work asking for donations, looking for a place to host their small store, and learning about operating a nonprofit from the existing Florida Clothes To Kids.
Now the walls are painted, the racks are full and the Haywood County Clothes To Kids store is ready for its first family.
“We are looking forward to meeting each child,” Russell said.
The organization is working with the Haywood County School System to identify children who qualify, including those who receive free and reduced lunches. Although somewhere around 4,000 Haywood County students are eligible for the school lunch program, Russell said she is not sure how many of them the school will refer to the store.
“We don’t know how many wardrobes we will give out in a given week,” Russell said. “We know there are at least that many people to serve.”
Each child will be welcomed with a bag to place clothes in and will have the chance to pick out three tops, two pairs of pants, a dress or skirt for girls, one jacket, an accessory or two, new socks and underwear, and a pair of shoes if available.
All the items are donated and gently used or new. (Disclaimer: all the socks and underwear are new.) Clothes To Kids has also received some non-school appropriate clothing such as bathing suits or church-quality dresses that the parents will have a chance to pick over when visiting with their children.
The Clothes To Kids store on Weldon Way (the first left after One Love Jamaican Restaurant on Dellwood Road) will only be open by appointment for now.
The nonprofit is looking for donations of all kinds, but shoes and boys’ clothing are particularly hard to come by. Clothes To Kids is also looking for businesses sponsors.
Those donating clothes can either leave them in a bag on the porch outside the shop or call 828.456.8990.