Many schools in Maine have had to step up in recent years to meet a growing need for free lunch programs and food pantries for students to take food home, but in counties like Waldo where the childhood poverty rate is about 4 percent above the state average, that need also extends to clothing.
There’s been a need for clothing in schools across Maine for years, and that increase is coupled with a rise in the number of students who need assistance with food and housing, according to Amelia Lyons Rukema, the state’s McKinney-Vento consultant.
“Clothing is a huge, huge part,” Lyons Rukema said. “If you’re staying temporarily with others, if you’re in a hotel, if you’re sleeping in your car, laundry is really hard to come by. … There’s a lot of components where clothing is absolutely essential.”
The 1987 McKinney-Vento Act is a federal law to protect the rights of students who are homeless or who do not have adequate housing. Lyons Rukema said that means working with schools throughout the state to address barriers to students receiving an education, whether through providing food to hungry students or providing students warm winter clothes to make sure they are safe waiting for the bus.
At Searsport Elementary School, Courtney Eastman, a counselor, created a clothing closet five years ago. She estimates around 60 percent of the roughly 230 students at Searsport Elementary School use it. To meet that need, she’s always on the lookout for donations.
“If we get some nice tennis shoes in, they’re gone. If we get some good snow gear in, it’s gone,”
Eastman said. She said the clothing closet wasn’t able to meet demand for winter gloves this year.
Eastman runs the clothing closet with Karen Toothaker, a social worker at the elementary school. Together, they process donations and make sure students have access to a variety of different clothing options, whether it be a short term fix for a student who gets muddy at recess, a pair of snow boots and gloves they borrow for the winter, or something that goes home with them permanently.
Toothaker said providing access to clothes for students from low-income households is particularly important.
“We have a lot of families that do struggle,” Toothaker said. “We support the kids by just giving them a space where they can go in and get things that they need.”
Waldo County’s poverty rate among children under the age of 18 sits at 17.6 percent as of 2021, around 4 percent higher than the state average for that age group, according to the state’s Center for Workforce Research and Information. The county is also experiencing an increase in people accessing food pantries, soup kitchens and other food aid organizations.
Lyons Rukema said the number of McKinney-Vento students in the state increased by a third in the last year. She said clothing closets provided through schools are an effective way to cut out some of the issues around accessing other forms of community clothing closets that might have tight hours or be far away from where a student is residing.
Stigma around clothing access is a barrier McKinney-Vento has been aiming to address for years, Lyons Rukema said. She worked with a student, for instance, who was skipping school because he was embarrassed to be wearing the same set of clothes all week.
Bonnie Kein, student services coordinator at Waldo County Technical Center, said reducing stigma was wrapped into the school’s clothing closet since it opened in 2015.
“We just noticed kids were coming in without winter coats, we’d see them get off the bus and here they were in just a sweatshirt.” Kein said. “For many, they just don’t have the money to go buy hats and gloves and boots.”
Kein and some other faculty moved to start a clothing closet at the technical center under the name “Cool to Be Warm Clothing Closet,” named to help reduce the stigma both for students and their parents around accessing free, warm clothing at school.
That same philosophy comes into play through the technical center’s ‘Tis The Season events, where all students are provided food and clothing right around Christmas, sourced from community donations, Kein said.
At Mount View High School in Thorndike, the clothing closet has received enough donations that they ended up putting out tables in the halls to display clothing for students during breaks and at the end of the day, according to Debbie Faulkner, who works in the school’s counseling office.
“Over the years, it’s been consistently getting more commonplace to take from the closet,” said Jericca Perkins, the mental health clinician at the high school. “It’s not looked down upon anymore … it’s more of a culture thing now where it’s just kind of open to everybody and everybody knows it.”
Perkins and Faulker said the students accessing the closet are predominantly from lower income households, but student volunteering to organize the clothing closet, help clean clothes and set them has reduced stigma around taking clothing home.
Donations are welcome at all of these schools, but keeping the students’ needs such as age-appropriate sizes in mind is essential for not bogging down the system with clothes that should be donated somewhere else.
Jessica Woods, assistant principal at Belfast Area High School, said the high school isn’t looking to become a drop-off for when Goodwill isn’t accepting donations, but that clean, gently worn clothing in all sizes is welcome.
Woods said Belfast high school’s clothing closet, which was created at the end of the 2021-2021 school year, is a “labor of love” that she undertakes along with some students and the school nurse to sort through donated clothing, weed out what can’t be used, and ensure students have access to clean clothing.
“Our student body is really motivated to help their peers,” Woods said. “So there’s no stigma around using the clothing closet or the food pantry, and I think kids are pretty supportive of each other here.”