The Giving Closet Project aims to help disadvantaged students

SNL The Giving Closet 1608A

By Martie Thompson
editor@floridanewsline.com

When Twin Lakes Academy Elementary fourth grade teacher Jennifer Smith was administering the Florida Standards Assessment computer-based testing last April, she noticed that students who were sleepy and sometimes disinterested also happened to be some of the ones who experienced situational poverty. Then she noticed the big, smelly pile of the school’s accumulated lost and found items — and she had a revelation.

“I came up with the idea of laundering the lost and found clothes and then putting them neatly on hangers on a rack so disadvantaged kids could select clothes for themselves,” Smith said.

As a teacher, Smith saw first-hand the negative effect situational poverty can have on a child’s success in school. She says that lack of resources, whether it is food, school supplies, hygiene products or clothing, has a detrimental impact on not only a student’s academic success, but also their social, emotional and behavioral growth — not only at the inner city schools, but also at Twin Lakes Academy Elementary, where situational poverty is on the rise.

And so, the idea for The Giving Closet Project was born.

With the approval of her principal, Smith wrote and distributed a letter to her fellow teachers asking for donations to purchase hangers and racks for the repurposed lost and found items. The teachers, who Smith says are the heart of The Giving Closet Project, were very supportive of her efforts and on April 22, she was given permission to start the cleanup process of Twin Lakes Academy Elementary’s lost and found.

“We bagged up 22 garbage bags of clothes from the lost and found and I drove around in the rain that night trying to find a cleaners that was open. I came upon Beach Cleaners — they ultimately helped by cleaning $600 worth of laundry for $250,” Smith said.

She also met with representatives from Team Depot, Home Depot’s charitable arm that usually works with veterans’ issues. They recommended she contact the store’s home office and soon she had a grant proposal accepted for $2,000.

“That is when I saw the potential for a non-profit foundation, so I could serve more schools than just my own,” Smith said.

She quickly filed the required non-profit incorporation paperwork and hasn’t looked back.

Smith also realized that the project was going to be too big to operate solely out of schools. She began looking for commercial space to house her new foundation, but the costs were prohibitive.

She was introduced to the owner of a local limousine company who had just leased a 1,600 square foot facility because he needed the parking lot; he generously offered her the use of the building, with a rent schedule to be determined. Smith and her colleagues are presently busy rehabbing the aging but useable facility.

In another stroke of luck, one of the students at Twin Lakes Academy Elementary had a family member who works at Florida Blue, so Smith met with them to explore a partnership. So far, Florida Blue has purchased clothing racks, paid for logoed laundry bags for the foundation and footed some of the cleaning bills. Smith estimates that The Giving Closet Project has laundered more than 2,000 pounds of clothing so far.

Smith still has big plans for the future. She envisions assisting schools with organizing their lost and found items to repurpose them to other students — and so far 10 local schools have requested help with this. Also in the works are hygiene kits known as “Kare Kits” as well as school supply kits known as “Success Sacks” that The Giving Closet Project will distribute to individual schools for use by disadvantaged students. Florida Blue is presently holding donation drives for items for these kits.

One day, she would like to have an old school bus repurposed as a mobile giving closet.  

“We want to give immediate support to kids throughout the school year, not just at the beginning of the year,” Smith said. “We want to be a student resource facility that also provides tutoring.”

Smith is currently working in tandem with the Duval County School District and plans to get referrals from parents and the Sulzbacher Center. And in a nod to the organization’s roots, Smith said they also plan to rely on teachers to help identify students who are in need of The Giving Closet Project’s resources.

“Teachers know more than anyone who these kids are,” she said.

The Giving Closet Project will celebrate their grand opening with a ceremony on Aug. 6 from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. at their facility located at 1873 Everlee Road. They are in need of clothing, hygiene items, school supplies and monetary donations to help make the vision a reality. Visit www.givingclosetproject.org to learn more.

Photo courtesy Jennifer Smith

Jennifer Smith and teachers with the first loads of clean laundry outside Beaches Cleaners.