In its first year Clothes To Kids RI has provided a diverse wardrobe to more than 3,000 students in Providence County whose families may be struggling to pay for rent and food, let alone clothes. This week the co-founders of the non-profit organization talk about how boosting a child’s self-esteem with a solid set of clothes can translate to how they do in school.
For more information about Clothes To Kids, click here.
Like clockwork, Eva Marie Mancuso and Marianne Baldwin arrive at a shopping plaza near the Providence/Cranston line at 9:15 on a Tuesday morning. They immediately head for the back of Eva’s SUV - stuffed with donated clothes and books.
Their destination: Clothes to Kids RI - a non-profit they founded in the summer of 2016. Over the past year Clothes to Kids has provided new wardrobes to 3,000 children in Providence County - many from families that have a hard enough time paying the rent or buying food.
Marianne: ``If you have to choose between a roof over your head, food, clothing is coming down there, it’s third, fourth, fifth on the list of important things. And I get that, it should be. You need to eat first. You need a roof over your head.’’
They know from having their own kids that wearing comfortable, good-looking clothes can be play a huge role in a child’s self-esteem - and ultimately how he or she does in school.
Marianne: ``We all have kids and we know: kids can be mean. And if kids aren’t wearing the right thing, or they’re wearing things that are too short, or too small, other kids make fun of them. And they spend their day felling inadequate and not quite the same. When they need all that energy to be learning what they need to learn.’’
Marianne and Eva met in law school more than 30 years ago and have been close friends ever since. They have vacationed together every year - even while Marianne was raising a family in Denver. Marianne moved back to Massachusetts several years ago - when Eva was chairing the Rhode Island Board of Education.
The idea for the non-profit came from conversations they were having about education.
Marianne: ``And in talking with Eva, working with the schools here in Rhode Island, and, hearing about that kids don’t go to school because they don’t have clothes. Or one child in the family is going on a really cold day because there’s one coat.’’
Eva: ``It’s one thing to chair the board of education and dictate policy for the state, it’s another thing to stand there and talk to a Mom who says God Bless You, or thank you for everything you’re doing, I never could have done this.’’
They modeled the Rhode Island program after one Marianne had seen in Denver - and later in Florida: anyone from Providence County that is eligible for free and reduced lunch can make an appointment to shop in this 3,200 square-foot space that is both bright and inviting.
Their motto: Clothe a Child - Change a Life.
A smaller sign on the wall in front reminds volunteers of the need: more than 45,000 kids currently meet the eligibility standard.
Clothes to Kids is laid out like many other clothing stores: Except that each child is assigned to one of the 15 volunteers who come on a rotating basis and help them pick out - then try on clothes - in one of two dressing rooms toward the back of the store. Each child receives five pairs on new underwear, five pairs of new socks, five tops, four bottoms, a pair of shoes and a coat. The girls also receive a dress.
They also now have uniforms for kids whose schools require them.
And there are extras: like bracelets and belts.
The inventory is labeled in both English and Spanish and Clothes to Kids has recruited Spanish-speaking volunteers to help with the shopping process.
The main difference with this store: there’s no cash register at the check out - just an oversized bag with the child’s name on it.
Eva says you might be surprised who is coming for help:
Eva: ``We get a lot of kids that are from working poor families. I think that’s the other thing that was most shocking to me is how many parents - and I say parent - but it’s mostly the mothers that I talk to on the phone, and when I’m scheduling the appointments they’ll say I can’t come Tuesday because that’s the day I take classes and then I pick the kids up. They’re going through those mental gymnastics that we go through on the phone. Nobody’s saying I was just sitting at home waiting for a handout.’’
Every piece of clothing that comes in is inspected, then washed and dried on site in a room at the back of the building.
Eva: ``We don’t want bins, we don’t want to have everybody drop off anything that they have. Because as Marianne says, we’re very picky about what we put out. We want fashionable clothing that kids are going to come in and get excited about.’’
Eva said she’s come around to Marianne’s approach to the inventory.
Eva: ``Marianne is really careful to make sure the kids have a lot of choice when they come in, so that our racks stay full. And my view is I want the whole store empty out so every kid gets them, but that doesn’t go with the mission. Because then kids would just be coming in and having to take whatever’s in their size.’’
Hummel: ``And the subliminal message is: I’m getting the scraps.’’
Marianne: ``And this is better than nothing and that’s not something we say here. And we don’t want to be there’s five pairs of pants in your size, pick for of them. We want to say there’s a dozen pair of pants in your size, pick four that you like and that fit you well.’’
While there is the inevitable administration that goes with any non-profit organization, Eva is happiest right in the thick of things: helping the kids to pick out what to wear.
What she and Marianne have found is that many of the children who arrive at Clothes to Kids have never shopped before.
Marianne: ``They’ve just been given a bag of clothes. Whether at their church, or from an aunt, that kind of thing, they don’t even know how to shop. The parents nor the children know what sizes they are. Because they just wear what they’re given. So it takes a little bit longer than it takes for me to walk into Old Navy with my kids and they know exactly what size they are. I can shop for them I know what they like, what size they are, you know the whole thing. This population it’s very different. We always laugh because we hold things up , do you like this? And they almost feel bad telling us no they don’t. And I say: Not hurting my feelings. My kids would tell me they don’t like it. So, they get to choose what they like: 45
One day in August we saw a family of 10 arrive for their appointment. They were refugees from Africa referred by the Catholic Diocese of Providence. Seven of their eight children - two girls and five boys - descended on the racks to pick out wardrobes.
Hummel: ``When they walk through the door what goes through your mind, with a family that size?’’
Eva: ``I came from a big family, so it doesn’t scare us. Basically what we say is we’re so glad we can help them and we have something in every size for the kids so that they all can get what they’re looking for.
As the word spreads Clothes to Kids is receiving an increasing number of donations, often brought in through a loading dock at the back door of the building, ready to be processed. And as the organization’s visibility has increased through 37 community partners, so has the demand.
Hummel: ``Do you ever feel overwhelmed at times?’’
Eva: ``Yes. I took a day off from the phones, because…’’
Hummel: ``Did you feel guilty?’’
Eva: ``I couldn’t talk to people anymore because they were so disappointed that they had to wait. When people have been here before they’ve waited maybe a week, two weeks. For me to tell them we’re booking two months out, I couldn’t say it anymore. It’s gut wrenching. It’s why we do what we do but it also makes it very difficult sometimes.’’
As a startup, Clothes to Kids is still buying more than half of the clothes it provides its recipients: a model they acknowledge is not sustainable. Marianne says it was three years before the Denver operation was receiving enough donated items to make that the majority of its inventory.
While Eva - a former prosecutor and one-time candidate for attorney general - still practices some law she is spending an increasing amount of time here. Marianne, who lives in Boston, takes the train three times a week to Providence, where Eva picks her up at the station.
Eva: ``This is what I should be doing now. I feel so happy and so grateful to have this opportunity. And doing it with my buddy, it’s the best. We say that. And sometimes we’re hard on each other, c’mon we can do this, or we didn’t raise any money this week.
Clothes to Kids is open three days a week and one Saturday a month - with appointments now booking two months out. They’d both like to see that change.
Marianne: ``In a year I’d like to be open more days a week and only putting people out even this time of year maybe four weeks, and not eight weeks. If we can do that next year I would be thrilled. In five years we’re going to be in a bigger space and doing three times what we’re doing now.
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight