Clothing kids with self-esteem

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Former chair of RI Board of Education Eva Marie Mancuso is running her new project at top speed. Her new organization, Clothes to Kids RI, started in August and is, for all intents and purposes, a store, but only for those with low income, who shop for free. 45,000 kids are eligible for this service, according to Mancuso-that’s the number of kids who qualify for free/reduced lunch in Providence County, who can shop at CTK as long as they are in school or studying for their GED. The goal? Self-esteem-as Mancuso puts it, to help kids “prosper and do well so they have clothing and can feel good about themselves.”

Much thought has gone into the sensory experience of visiting the CTK store, from the inspirational posters on the walls to the kids’ play area just inside the front door stocked with books, toys, and a rocking horse. Huge block letters indicate the clothing items available in each section of the store and, above the dressing rooms, proclaim, “Clothe a Child Change a Life.” At 3,200 square feet, the room is packed with clothes but easy to navigate, brightly colored, and immaculate. Every item of clothing is inspected, washed, dried, steamed on-site and, if need be, mended, then tagged clearly by size and grouped on the rack with like colors-all this to craft a genuine shopping experience.

Mancuso and her cofounder, Marianne Baldwin, have been friends since their days at Suffolk University Law School. Asked about the organization’s focus on clothing, Mancuso steers the spotlight to Baldwin.

Education is her passion

“My passion is anything that helps with education,” says Mancuso, but Baldwin wanted to deal with clothing in particular. While volunteering at a food bank, Baldwin concluded that “food is being done, housing is being done,” in terms of services offered to the low-income population. “Clothes aren’t.” Access to clothing grants self-esteem, because “kids can be mean to other kids,” she says. The goal is to “take away barriers,” Mancuso chimes in: Providing breakfast and housing to kids removes barriers to education; clothing does the same.

Baldwin used to live in Denver and discovered Clothes to Kids there; later she and Mancuso traveled to that site and to Clearwater, Florida, where the first Clothes to Kids opened 15 years ago, for guidance on how to craft their Rhode Island store and apply for 501(c)3 status. Their affiliate agreement with the other CTK sites grants them access to “everything,” Mancuso says; this includes the inventory software from the Florida store, allowing CTK to catalog the names, schools, and districts of each child who comes to the store. “We have the same lettering on our website,” says Mancuso, and the “mission is aligned with the other affiliates.”

The store is located at 77 Reservoir Ave., Providence just over the Cranston line in a shopping plaza not far from Blast Fitness. Family shopping visits are made by appointment; call 941-8050.

On a recent evening, the flow of families arriving to shop had begun to pick up. Children waited in the play area, while the volunteers moved the four available carts around the floor, affixing a sign with each child’s name to each cart. The shoppers provide notification of free/reduced lunch or a referral letter “from an approved community advocate”-often a school or a social service agency-to gain admittance. Each child chooses 4 bottoms and 5 tops, as well as underwear, socks, shoes, and a coat. The shop also stocks extra items to throw in with the main bundle, such as pajamas, belts, and handbags. And each child chooses a stuffed animal and a book to keep before leaving the shop. Sixteen to 20 kids arrive to shop every day. The organization has provided 1,200 wardrobes since opening.

“This cohort of children is very easy to work with,” Mancuso says, approvingly. “Very grateful, very pleased with the experience.” They “don’t know the brands” and have minimal experience with shopping. “No one’s ever said, ‘What size is your child?’” she says. The shopping experience is intended to be as much of a self-esteem booster as the clothes themselves.

Despite her professional shift from politics to a nonprofit, Mancuso’s three years on the Board of Education are evident. Asked who occupies her board of directors, she pauses, then lays it out: “People who owed me a favor.” The board is, indeed, teeming with local government types: Sean Feeney, former special counsel to the City of Providence, Sahara Rodriguez, a field investigator for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, and former governor Lincoln Chafee.

CTK rents its space from former mayor Joe Paolino, described by Mancuso as “an amazing philanthropist” who raised $5,000 for the organization and to whom they “pay pennies for this space” (Mancuso recently appeared on Paolino’s TV show In the Arena).

Boots on the ground

This turn in her career, she says, is a continuation of her political work, not a detour. “I ran the top level of the state and now I’m working boots on the ground,” she declares. She “loved doing educational policy” and CTK “is just one more piece of education.”

Mancuso works hard to rope in the Rhode Island community for her cause. Knitting and sewing groups donate their crafts. Saint Rose of Lima and Bishop Hendricken have run clothing drives. Ameritrade recently dropped off a bundle of brand-new coats. Big Brothers Big Sisters pays CTK for unusable textiles, then recycles them. Two students from Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island regularly volunteer at the shop to practice their English; they also teach the employees and volunteers Spanish and return calls to Spanish speakers. Mancuso cites the organization’s growing list of community partners-32 active ones, including parishes, synagogues, schools, and Hasbro Children’s Hospital.

There’s a use for every donation of clothes, Mancuso says. “Nothing is thrown away.” Close to 90 cents of every dollar goes to the organization’s mission. CTK’s focus on a single service helps it communicate the mission to volunteers and donors, Mancuso says, and allows people to participate in that mission in various ways, including by donating at different levels, volunteering at the store, and running clothing drives. Those who are asked always give, she says. And her volunteers are highly committed; there are 18 on call who come every week to staff the store and process donations. The amount of clothing received and number of volunteers available allow for three days a week of open hours and one Saturday a month-to accommodate the 99 percent of their customers who are “working poor,” according to Mancuso who, as CTK’s executive director, is one of only two staff members. She also works part-time as a managing partner at a law firm in Providence.

Next on the docket: CTK is working on developing so-called Community Opportunity Zones, turning schools into hubs for necessary services, particularly for recently arrived immigrants who may be struggling to access all the programs available to them. Crossroads Rhode Island and Amos House are partners in this venture. CTK will throw a brown-bag lunch fundraiser in March at the Convention Center, where a child psychologist will discuss the effects of clothing on children. And 5 years from now, Mancuso hopes to be “in every community.”

Mancuso does not, however, see the organization enlarging its mission to include advocacy: “Eva takes the advocacy role,” she asserts. “This is too important a service to make it political.” The mission is what’s important, and “that’s why we spent the money to blow it up and put it on the wall.”

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