The little boy stood at the front door, reluctant to step into the store where racks of clothing and school uniforms stretched in a rainbow of colors. His grandmother confided that he didn’t want new clothes, didn’t want to go to school, didn’t want to do homework, didn’t want to shower. .
“Then we noticed he was looking at a Woody doll [from Toy Story] in the toy section and we showed it to him,” recalled Lourdes Santos, executive director of Neat Stuff. “Little by little he started relaxing and looking around.”
A while later, the little boy walked out with school clothing and pajamas — and, of course, the Woody doll. When his grandmother called a week later to report that the child was acclimating to school and obediently showering before bed, Santos said, “This is why we’re here. Clothing can make such a difference in a child’s life.”
Neat Stuff is a Miami nonprofit that provides free, new clothing and school uniforms to abused, neglected, abandoned and other at-risk children. Launched in 1995 in founder Phyllis Krug’s garage, the organization collects clothing, accessories, uniforms, even toys from corporate donors. It is one of several groups that donate school-related items to underprivileged kids.
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Krug was a guardian ad litem volunteer who noticed that many foster children had nothing but the clothes on their backs when they were removed from their homes. So she and her friends began collecting gently used items, washing and pressing them, and then handing them out in front of family court. Grants soon followed and a permanent store in an Allapattah warehouse district off Northwest 27th Avenue was opened.
Corporate donors have made it possible for the organization to continue, Santos said. Stores such as Bye Bye Baby, Disney, Osh Kosh, Gymboree and Carter’s donate boxes of goods. Miami-based Perry Ellis International, she adds, has been a godsend.
“Look at these,” she said, holding out different Perry Ellis brand shirts with tags hanging from their sleeves. “You have something for everyone here.”
In a separate room, uniform slacks line the racks, separated by size. Uniform polos come in half a dozen colors, from light yellow to hunter green — a big improvement from the early years, when Neat Stuff carried only white polos. The uniforms are not donated. They are bought with grant money provided by various organizations, including The Miami Foundation, The Children’s Trust and the Kiwanis Club of Biscayne Bay.
So far this year Neat Stuff has bought about $30,000 worth of uniforms, “and that won’t get me through the school year. We load up in June and July, but our needs continue throughout the year,” Santos said.
Neat Stuff serves about 3,000 kids a year who are referred to the organization by case management organizations or the Department of Children and Families. About 60 percent are either in foster care or have been temporarily placed in a relative’s home. Some kids get five uniform shirts, three uniform pants, underwear and school accessories; others are allotted two sets. All receive a pair of shoes.
“We’ve had kids come here wearing nothing but a long T shirt and that’s all they own,” Santos said. “They try something on in the fitting room and they jump right out; they’re so excited.”
Other local organizations also provide everything from school supplies to bookbags and hair accessories. Voices for Children, another nonprofit serving children in foster care, has partnered with Old Navy for the past five years to meet kids’ school clothing needs. Each child gets a $100 gift certificate to be used at Old Navy at the Shoppes of Kendall, and a volunteer helps the child select appropriate items at a discount. The project is possible thanks to various donors, including the Micky and Madeleine Arison Family Foundation and the Office Depot Foundation.
“We’ve always tried to address the kids’ basic needs, and it was clear to us that getting them new school uniforms was a big need,” said Valerie Nucete, Voices for Children community and development director.
Voices for Children also partners with Style Saves, a nonprofit founded by Ford fashion stylist Rachael Russell, for an annual back-to-school shopping spree held in late summer. More than 2,000 kids were served this past year alone, Nucete said.
In Broward County, several groups also help at-risk children get ready for school. In June, the Broward Education Fund launched a crowdfunding campaign to benefit homeless children and their families. Funds will go to purchase gift cards for such basic needs as toiletries, socks, undergarments and school uniforms, said Carole D. Mitchell, a social worker on the Homeless Education Assistance Resource Team (HEART).
In mid-October, the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority donated more than 200 backpacks for homeless children, and In Jacob’s Shoes provides gently used footwear throughout the year to children in need.
The idea behind these giveaways, explained Rosa Plasencia, president and CEO of the Miami-based Amigos for Kids, is “about creating a positive experience for children when they go back to school. We want them to understand that learning is what’s going to make them be what they want to be.”
Amigos for Kids sponsors a free after-school program for 100 children at Jose Marti Park and offers parenting education through their “Amigos Strengthens Families & Community” classes. Many kids identified through these programs — as well as children from two Broward schools and 300 others whose parents are migrant workers in Homestead — are recipients of Amigos’ annual backpack giveaway. More than 1,000 backpacks stuffed with supplies were given out this summer.
“You want them to start school so they’re ready to learn, so that when they need something, they have it,” Plasencia said. “It makes all the difference in how they approach school.”