Helping dress local school children for success
By LIBBY WIERSEMA
Imagine opening your dresser drawer in the morning to find you have no undergarments.
Imagine slipping your sockless feet into cold shoes before heading out on a frigid morning.
Imagine a scenario in which owning these most basic articles of clothing is a luxury and an unaffordable one, at that.
For children living in poverty, a broad imagination is not needed to feel the sting of lack. For those who live more comfortable lives, a little empathy can go a long way toward easing the pain. And it is the willingness of a handful of volunteers— and a responsive community – to walk a mile in the shoddy shoes of a needy child that is making a difference.
The Kids Closet of Darlington is by no means a sizable operation, but the sweep of its charitable arm is long and wide enough to help ensure that no Darlington child suffers the indignities of an inadequate wardrobe.
How it works
“We are a non-profit with nine volunteers,” said Beth Hubbard, a school nurse who gives of her time to keep Kids Closet up and running. “We rely upon the schools to identify children in need of clothing. Once that happens, the children are sent home with a voucher and an appointment is set for a visit.”
The children can come shopping twice, usually once in the fall and again in spring so they have the right clothing for the warm and cold weather. Before visits, parents provide sizes to make sure the appropriate attire is in stock. If necessary, volunteers will go shopping for items that fit the child. The child is then invited to do their own ‘shopping’ from the thoughtfully stocked racks at the Kids Closet site located just off the Darlington Square.
“We accept donations of new or very gently used clothing for school-aged children, ages 4 and up, as well as personal hygiene products and money,” Hubbard added. “The clothes must be fashionable – the kind of things a child will actually want to wear. These kids come in and get to look through the racks just like other kids get to do when their parents take them shopping. It’s great to see their smiles when they leave with outfits they feel good about wearing to school.”
How it started
Since 2008, this “little non-profit that could” has been working hard to meet the daunting challenges of a community in which more than 30% of children are living in poverty. (KidsCount, 2019) Once the need for a kids’ clothing closet was identified, a small group of concerned citizens jumped in to help put a plan in motion.
“Wanda Scharstein had the initial idea,” said Hubbard. “But we did not know how to make it happen. We started with zero money and a burner phone. But things fell into place thanks to Carolina Bank, which gave us this space free of charge. A local artist, Heather Jordan, painted the murals on our walls, carpenters came in to help, and we found these clothing racks in the basement of the old Belk. The generosity of this community – businesses, civic groups, churches and individual supporters – has enabled us to operate with practically no expenses at all.”
They looked to DSS for guidance and jumped at the chance to initially operate beneath the 401c umbrella of Hartsville’s Carolina Kids, which provides similar services in that community. Once they worked the wobble out of their “non-profit legs,” Kids Closet of Darlington stood firmly on its feet and became its own entity. This collective community effort was soon blessed with grants and donations.
“It’s been amazing to see the Pee Dee come together in this way,” said Hubbard. “And we are blessed with caring volunteers – all of us work so we coordinate to set appointments and keep the store stocked and organized.”
At the peak of the pandemic, the crushing financial pressures felt by many local families sent Kids Closet referrals skyrocketing. An estimated 150 children came “shopping” during that time.
“We were busier than ever, but Kids Closet was able to provide,” said Hubbard. “It seems that whenever we have a need, the community steps up to fill it.”
Clothing insecurity might not seem as urgent a situation as homelessness or hunger, but it is a real crisis with real consequences that are not always easy to see. Low-income families who struggle to pay rent and keep food on the table often do not have anything left to buy shoes and clothes to fit a child’s rapidly growing body. Many times, their budgets cannot even bear the cost of a winter coat.
On top of that, researchers have discovered that children who do not have a functional wardrobe tend to have poor school attendance rates. This is due to the shame they feel about their clothes and fear of being taunted by their more fortunate, stylish peers. Kids Closet addresses these issues by helping children dress so they blend in at school.
“We try to send kids home with a week’s worth of clothing – usually four to five shirts and pairs of pants, a coat and gloves, and shoes,” said Whitney DeMaurice, another volunteer. “We give a lot of bookbags, too, and provide school uniforms as needed.”
“And everybody gets new socks, underwear and pajamas,” Hubbard added. “We believe that’s a right everyone should have and not just a privilege for those who can afford these things.”
The volunteers strive for a “boutique” feel for the Kids Closet shop, with clothing neatly tagged, arranged by sizes, and attractively coordinated – just like any department store.
“We want it to be a fun experience, so kids walk out of here feeling like any other kid who gets to go shopping for school clothes,” said Hubbard. “We stock accessories, too, like scarves, jewelry, hair clips, and that’s a big hit, especially with the teenagers.”
It’s a fact: Clothing insecurity creates barriers that prevent children from experiencing life on an even playing field. While impoverished parents might be able to receive assistance for housing, utilities and food, there is no government safety net for those in need of clothing. For kids in school, this can mean the difference between a positive and negative childhood experience. Growing up with such disparities can have lifelong repercussions.
“All children deserve clean clothing in good condition,” said Hubbard. “Not having to worry about that lets them enjoy school just like other kids who have more.”
Kids Closet also provides an avenue for teens to learn the value of humble service to others.
“We offer high school students the chance to get service hours in for working in the shop,” said DeMaurice. “They come in and do cleaning and stocking, and that lets them experience helping others. It’s good for them, good for us, and good for the kids who need us.”
Indeed, the most profound effects of programs like Kids Closet extend beyond what is visible to the eye. When communities come together to clothe the needy, it is a transformative experience that fosters widespread goodwill, inclusiveness, and a deeper sense of humanity. If it takes a village to adequately nurture a child, then perhaps Darlington should hereby be known as one.
Kids Closet of Darlington
- New and gently used clothes for school-aged kids that are clean and in good condition
Note: Because kids come in all sizes, adult sizes are welcome, too.
- Unopened personal hygiene products like shampoo, deodorant, etc.
- Gift cards to stores such as Walmart and Target
- Fashion jewelry, purses, scarves, mittens, gloves, hats etc.
- Toys and children’s books either new or in good condition
- Shoes that are slightly worn or new
- Winter coats for kids
- Bookbags and school supplies
To arrange for drop-off, please call (843) 858-8038.
To donate money, make checks out to “Kids Closet of Darlington” and send to:
Kids Closet of Darlington
101 Oklahoma Drive
Darlington, SC 29532
Receipts for tax purposes are provided for donations up to $500.