Earlier this month, Lynn Margherio, Founder and CEO of Cradles to Crayons, and City Connects Program Manager Sara Davey led a hearing at the Massachusetts State House to talk about clothing insecurity in the state of Massachusetts – and across the country.
“The goal,” Davey says of the briefing which was co-hosted by State Representative Marjorie Decker, “was to raise awareness and talk to legislators about how they can help children and families.”
Some legislators were already aware of the problem.
“Several legislators spoke from the heart about their own childhood experiences of living in low income situations,” Davey explains. “One legislator said that when he was young, his clothes came from a local church. It was powerful to hear from legislators who know what the impact of clothing insecurity is.”
Cradles to Crayons defines clothing insecurity “as the lack of access to affordable, adequate, appropriate clothing.” Families “may have some clothing and shoes, however, they may not fit properly, be in wearable condition, or be seasonally appropriate for the weather.”
And as Davey points out, the cost of keeping up with clothing needs takes up a significant amount of families’ budgets. Clothing insecurity also affects how students feel about themselves and their appearance, and it increases absenteeism.
While federal and state governments provide aid to help families with food and housing, there is no government support for clothing, even though nationally, some 37 percent of children live in or near poverty, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Center.
Cradles to Crayons has been addressing this challenge since 2002, when it started collecting donated clothes “to provide children from birth through age 12 with the everyday essentials they need to thrive — at home, at school, and at play,” to achieve the organization’s vision of “a future free of childhood poverty.”
In 2017, City Connects and Cradles to Crayons formed a partnership and launched a Predictable Service Pilot program to address “clothing needs for disadvantaged students in a deeper, more comprehensive manner.”
Instead of just responding to urgent clothing needs, the pilot program proactively anticipated and met predictable needs. Families signed up ahead of time, which meant Cradles to Crayons could plan its acquisition of clothes and its deliveries in advance. This created stability for parents who knew that they would receive school clothes and supplies in the fall as well as coats and boots in the winter.
“We identified families who we knew would have consistent needs,” Davey explains. “We wanted to get ahead of that need.”
Sixty percent of students in the pilot program were or recently had experienced homelessness; and 70 percent were being raised by a single parent or grandparent. Other barriers that families faced included language barriers, unmet transportation needs, and serious health issues that prevented caregivers from working.
A preliminary assessment of the pilot program found a number of positive outcomes, including improved school attendance as well as improvement for all students in one or more of City Connects’ four developmental domains (academic, social/emotional behavior, physical health, and family). In addition, children had weather-appropriate clothes that fit them properly when they experienced growth spurts. And the program documented that families have consistent, ongoing clothing needs.
There was also happiness.
Many students were excited when Cradles to Crayons’ KidPacks bundles of hand-selected clothes arrived at school because the students knew they would receive some of these clothes.
“One child received a jean jacket, and he wears it so much, he’s almost worn it out,” Davey says.
“There was a family that had been receiving clothing, and the parents told their City Connects coordinator that they had noticed that their child appeared more confident. Some of the benefit comes from feeling proud of what you’re wearing and feeling equal. That’s what this family said, My child feels like they’re more equal to their peers now.”
“Another coordinator said there was nothing like the smile on one mom’s face when she talked about how happy her daughter was to receive Cradles to Crayons clothes.”
Covid, of course, took a toll, limiting Cradles to Crayons’ use of volunteers because of capacity limits in their Giving Factory® locations. But Davey says the pandemic has also been “a wake-up call for people who didn’t have a perspective on students’ needs because they don’t work in education. Now people are seeing that families’ needs are bigger than they realize.”
“I hope people understand that this is about so much more than clothes,” Davey adds. “It’s about children feeling proud and how that helps them succeed.”