Teachers, staff and students at South Middle School want to make sure every child there has the proper clothing to be comfortable all year long -- especially those kids for whom winter is a foreign concept.

The school has designated a space that houses several types of items -- coats, jackets, boots, gloves, socks, sweatshirts and other things -- that are available for kids who need them, either due to financial stress or an emergency of some kind.

Requests for these items have increased compared to last year at this time, said Heather Skogen, who is in her second year as a social worker at the school.

“It’s a busy time of year,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s kids having more needs or more families coming into Grand Forks.”

Because South Middle School enrolls a number of students in the English Language Learner program, many from African nations, “there are a lot of kids who haven’t experienced winter yet,” Skogen said.

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At any rate, she’s pleased that word about the “closet” is getting around and she’s hearing from students who say, “I need this,” or prospective donors who say, “What do you need?” she said.

The “closet” was started a few years ago by a couple of students as part of a class project, Skogen said.

The students conducted a clothing drive, with the help of Amanda Weston, then a counselor at the school, to gather items such as coats, jackets, boots, caps and gloves.

Until last year, students were more involved in managing the room but “it got to be too much” and items had become disorganized, said Joel Schleicher, who’s in his first year as principal. “We kind of cleaned it out.”

“We got rid of things that had been there for a long time and no one was using,” Skogen said.

She and Monica Keller, a paraprofessional, pared down the inventory with an eye toward “what kids are actually wearing,” she said.

“Middle school students are very particular about what they’re wearing.”

Quick change

Schleicher said the closet is useful “as a place where, for instance, if students needs socks or they spilled something on a shirt, we can get them a new shirt.”

Anything can happen in the course of a day at a school of 566 students in sixth to eighth grade.

“I had one student who slipped and fell and her pants got all muddy,” Skogen said. That student chose a replacement pair from this closet, she said.

It’s also a good resource for “students who forgot that it’s gym day and they need sneakers,” Skogen said.

Some students who come to school wearing something “inappropriate” are asked to cover up or change the garment, she said.

For students who are in need, but hesitant to speak up or don’t want to be seen asking for help, the closet is located in an out-of-the-way space “where nobody would walk by and see anyone getting anything,” Skogen said.

“Kids don’t want to be looked at differently.”

Parents sometimes initiate the request, knowing their child’s needs, said Skogen, who then invites the student to come and pick out an item.

“Some kids are pretty excited,” she said. “Others say, ‘Nope, I’m good.’ And I have to say, ‘Look, your mom is going to keep calling me until you take this.’ ”

Or, a teacher may suggest that a student needs something, said Skogen, noting that “some parents are very proud and don’t want to accept things.”

In such cases, she will call the parents in advance, so they know where the item their child brings home came from.

Donations

Donations and other types of support come from a variety of sources, as the community has become more aware of the existence of this closet at South Middle School, Skogen said.

“Word gets around,” she said. “We have quite a few parents who call and say, 'my kid has outgrown this or that item,' or the district will receive a big donation of gloves and we divide them among the schools.”

“Parents drop off gift cards and say, ‘buy what you need,’ which sometimes get used to purchase underwear,” Skogen said.

Last year, the local Rotary Club “donated quite a few gift cards,” at the behest of a South staff member who belonged to the club, Skogen said.

A donation like that gives her the opportunity to purchase a specific item that’s needed, she said.

The district’s social workers all work together to share or exchange items as needed, Skogen said. “We shoot emails to each other, like, ‘do you have ...?’ ”

Social workers in the school district are also quick to spread the word about coat drives -- such as the Salvation Army’s annual project -- for needy families who would benefit.

Having this closet for kids at South Middle School is a convenient way of serving an important need of local families.

“Not every school has space for this,” she said, although some schools do keep winter gear, shoes and other items on hand.

Last year, counselors at Red River High School started a similar project, Skogen said. In addition to the items for everyday use, their inventory includes some formal attire and accessories that students can wear to prom.