Mobilizing generosity: connecting kids to clothes in Salem

In 2016, the Clothing Connection started giving clothes to children in one of Salem’s public schools. The small nonprofit focused on the kids at the Carlton Innovation School, providing basics such as sweatshirts, socks, and sneakers so they could participate in gym class. 

Today, the Clothing Connection is a City Connects community partner working in multiple schools, and it’s a great example of City Connects’ practice of helping students by mobilizing existing resources. These resources are often health services, spots in day camps, and, yes, clothes. But the story of the Clothing Connection is also a story about mobilizing a community’s generosity.

“When you send your children to school in a district, you get a more complete and complex view of the needs in that district,” Susanna Baird says. She’s a co-founder of the Clothing Connection and the mother of two Salem students. 

“Having a pair of sneakers means that you can go to gym and recess. I don’t know about anybody else’s kids, but when my kids were little, gym and recess were pretty important to making it through the rest of the day, probably more so in the winter, when you come home and you can’t run around outside that much. Many kids don’t have the winter gear they need to go outside.” 

Baird isn’t the only one who noticed the need. So did Salem’s teachers and principals, and so did the members of the Clothing Connection’s board, a group that includes parents, school staff, and church staff, with a support base that includes more parents and members of the North Shore’s volunteer and business communities.

 To address kids’ needs, the organization provides new and used clothes for all four seasons – clothes that kids will actually like.

“What we wear is a reflection of ourselves, and it affects how we feel in both a sensory way and in terms of self-confidence. So it’s really important for us to make sure that we’re buying what kids want to wear, and what their caregivers want them to wear. Nobody wants to go through the day with something that doesn’t feel right, whether it’s itchy or because you prefer pants with an elastic waist, as a lot of the younger kids do. We want the kids we serve to feel good in their clothes.” 

The organization also pays attention to kids’ favorite things, whether they like the Patriots or a particular super hero.

“You might be new to a school,” Baird says. “Or your family might be new to Salem, and if you have a Wonder Woman shirt and another kid is wearing Wonder Woman, you can make a connection because your shirt is a reflection of who you feel you are.” 

With middle school students, the organization is taking a “closet approach,” where students can choose what they want. This respects the fact that older children like to select their own clothes. 

Over time, the Clothing Connection has grown, providing more clothes as well as toiletries and, when asked, scrambling to find sports equipment for kids. 

“If we knock on enough doors, we can find the equipment,” Baird says. “Somebody has it.”

To gather what kids need, the Clothing Connection taps into local generosity. One example is the annual Thankful for Warm Clothing Drive. Donors can “adopt a child,” which means shopping for a full set of outdoor winter gear and pajamas or just buying one or two items. Children’s identities are kept private, but donors are told a child’s grade and clothing size and what the child likes, whether it’s the color blue or rainbows and unicorns.

“People really enjoy this. They really get excited. Last year, we had an awesome donor – who helps us every year – who drove all over to find clothes for a kid who loves the Celtics.” 

Individuals also raise funds, posting requests on Facebook or mentioning the organization to their Thanksgiving guests.

Companies and organizations help out, too, among them JM Electrical in Lynnfield. And the Salem Children’s Charity provided a $1,000 grant. 

“We couldn’t do it without City Connects,” Baird adds. City Connects coordinators help the organization identify children and distribute clothes. Coordinators are also a single point of contact whom many parents already know and feel comfortable with. Coordinators also help organizations like the Clothing Connection connect with other like-minded organizations as well as donors. 

The pandemic has taken a toll, but the Clothing Connection isn’t slowing down. 

The organization has just agreed to take over the clothes closet at Salem High School. And it is also working on creating a Caregiver Council of parents and guardians, so they can provide feedback on what’s offered and how the process is working. 

“I would love to have our work feel more like a partnership with families.”

Another dream is to be able to more consistently provide sports equipment. 

But the number-one item on the organization’s wish list is being able to provide clothes for all the kids who need them in all of Salem’s public schools. 

“When you’re part of the school community, you realize pretty quickly that not everyone the same access to what their kids need,” Baird says. “That’s why a lot of people in the community are jumping in to support us whenever they can.”

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