‘Kids Community Closet’ opens in Wellston

BY MIA LEVINE, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

A click of a lock and the turn of a knob will soon be sounds of delight for some St. Louis children who lack basic essentials.

A special closet full of brand-new coats, clothing, and school supplies will open its doors beginning Friday, Jan. 18 at the kickoff of the Kids Community Closet. The ribbon-cutting for this pilot program will take place at 10 a.m. at Central Elementary in the Wellston School District.

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The Kids Community Closet is an outgrowth of St. Louis’ National Council of Jewish Women’s successful Back-to-School! Store, now in its eighth year of operation. The Back-to-School! Store offers a one-day shopping experience at Central Reform Congregation for under-served elementary school students.

Recently, the BTSS reached its full capacity, boasting over 800 participants. In response, the Kids Community Closet was created as an extension of the BTSS. The closet will deliver the items directly to children at their school. This allows NCJW to serve hundreds, and potentially thousands, more students each year.

“This is a way of reaching out into the community to access kids that we can’t otherwise reach,” said NCJW’s Executive Director, Ellen Alper. “We want to offer them what they need to keep them in school, to increase their daily attendance, to help them get a better education. The ultimate goal is hopefully breaking the cycle of poverty and getting these kids educated,” she said.

In fact, school administrators and teachers report that a significant amount of absenteeism is due to the fact that children are ashamed of their clothing or even have to share clothing with other family members. Likewise, many children arrive at school in clothing that does not fit or is in disrepair.

According to Alper, the NCJW chose the Wellston School District not only because 95% its kids live at or below the poverty level, but because this district has only one elementary school. “When starting a project of this scope, it is much easier dealing with one administration, one set of schools, and one set of principals,” she explained. Once we get all the kinks worked out, we will then open up the project to other schools in the area.”

With the help of St. Louis company Architectural Millwork, who donated all of the design work and labor, two closets will be built on wheels, locked, and put into the school. The closets are designed with shelves, hooks, and drawers and will be stocked with brand-new winter clothing, underwear, shoes, hats, school supplies, backpacks, and personal care items, all purchased with money from private foundations and funders.

“We’ll supply whatever the school tells us they need for their students. We just want to keep them in school on a day-to-day basis,” adds Alper.

Over 300 children at Central Elementary and the Pre-K and Kindergarten building will benefit from the closets — one in each location. At the elementary school, the closet will be in the social worker’s office, so if any child needs something, the request will go directly through that office. The NCJW wants to avoid attaching any stigmas or damaging a child’s self-esteem.

“For example, a boy may come to school with no socks and it’s 18 degrees outside,” says Alper. “The teacher will bring the child to the social worker and she’ll handle it very discreetly, so that he gets what he needs without creating a scene or a situation for the child. Also, a letter will go home with the item showing that it’s from the Kids Community Closet. That way there is clear communication with the parent too,” she said.

When the Wellston School District was first approached by the NCJW about the program, they were extremely receptive and somewhat relieved, says Alper.

“Right now, the teachers, the social workers, and the school nurse are actually buying the stuff for the kids out of their own pocket. Not only will this program help the kids, but it relieves the burden on the teachers. Now, the teachers can concentrate on teaching. Alper grins. “That’s a really good thing.”

Published Jan. 16, 2008