JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It was the week before school started when a Jacksonville mom told the principal at Martin Luther King Jr. FAME Academy that she didn't know if her kids would be there on the first day because she didn't have clothes and shoes for them to wear.
It's a familiar situation for a lot of families here on the First Coast and since Hurricane Irma, the need is greater than ever. A local teacher with a big heart, Jennifer Smith, is on a mission to help fill that gap.
“I started my teaching career 13 years ago and year after year, I have constantly taken kids shopping or bought shoes and have spent thousands of dollars helping students," Smith said.
We first met Jennifer Smith in 2016 when she launched The Giving Closet Project.
"It started with taking unclaimed lost and found clothes that sit in piles throughout schools everywhere that were getting tossed out or donated to other organizations that resell things," she said. "We have since then laundered almost 50,000 pounds of clothes and have created a system for filtering those clothes back into schools.”
Community First Cares Foundation provided the funding to create The Giving Closet’s first, full-service clothing assistance program at Martin Luther King Jr. FAME Academy Thursday in Northwest Jacksonville. It will be a hub for the other 12 schools that feed into Ribault High School.
“I know that academics are struggling, and if a kid doesn't have clean clothes to wear, they're not going to come to school," she said. "They're not going to want to perform. I know lots of schools right now, there's major attendance issues and I feel like The Giving Closet Project is going to start changing that.”
“She shared with us the staggering statistics of students that did not have the basic necessities to really start their day out of school," said Missy Peters, the Executive Director of Community First Cares Foundation. "So she spoke and we listened and we really felt an overwhelming sense of duty to help rally around this project.”
From uniforms to everyday clothes to shoes and backpacks, The Giving Closet is here to make sure student's needs are met.
The Giving Closet Project has also created a referral system, which allows teachers, counselors and social workers to fill orders year round for students, providing them with clothing, shoes, hygiene products, and other supplies.
"We are kind of a one-stop shop and all of this is for free," she said. "Last year, we helped hundreds of students and our goal this year is to serve close to five thousand."
Smith said she really hopes The Giving Closet Project helps spike attendance.
"It’s going to be amazing to track that data over time to see the impact we are making in the community… I feel like if we can perfect this in Duval County, our program can be replicated and implemented in any school district across the country," she said.
The Giving Closet plans to expand to St Johns County in January.
If you would like to help the non-profit, there are a lot of ways to get involved. Smith said they are especially in need of shoes and boys clothing items. They are also looking for warehouse space, a truck or trailer to transport supplies, and they're looking for businesses to serve as drop off location sites.