Programs Help Kids Go Back to School in Style

Jan Ritz, Clothes To Kids merchandising supervisor, readies items to be displayed in the storefront shopping area.

Jan Ritz, Clothes To Kids merchandising supervisor, readies items to be displayed in the storefront shopping area.

It’s back to school for Pinellas County students beginning August 24, which means it is also the time of year parents dread: back-to-school shopping. Luckily, there are a variety of ways to make the process less painful and more economical. Thrift store and vintage finds are all the rage now, particularly for older students, and there are a wealth of these types of stores in Pinellas County. There are also programs that can make the task easier and more affordable.

The Florida Legislature approved a record 10-day back-to-school tax holiday for 2015, beginning at 12:01 a.m. Friday, August 7 and running through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, August 16. During this time, no Florida sales tax or local option tax will be collected on certain clothing, school supplies and computers and accessories.

There are also local organizations that can help, such as Clothes To Kids, an agency in Pinellas County that provides new and quality used clothing at no cost to low income or in-crisis school-age children. Students may be referred by a teacher, social worker or religious leader or certify they are eligible for free and/or reduced lunch to qualify.

According to the Pinellas County School Board website, pcsb.org, as of the 2014-2015 school year, 65 schools in Pinellas County participated in the federal Community Eligibility Option program, meaning that all students attending these schools were provided with lunch at no charge.

“That number tells you just how many people are in need of our service,” said Colette Lerat Applebaum, shopping supervisor for Clothes To Kids. “Those are the kids we want to reach.”

At Clothes To Kids, eligible children from PreK4-12 receive a week’s wardrobe twice a year which includes five new pairs of underwear; five new pairs of socks; five tops and four bottoms, including uniforms; one dress (optional); a pair of shoes and one jacket in season. Parents and kids make an appointment to shop, choosing from racks of items divided into departments, and featuring the brands, styles and colors kids crave.

“Modified uniforms are the way many schools are going now, and we use some of our donated funds to purchase new uniform tops and bottoms in all sizes,” said Colette.

Shopping supervisor Colette Lerat Applebaum shows the new school uniform items that were purchased through donation.

Shopping supervisor Colette Lerat Applebaum shows the new school uniform items that were purchased through donation.

Clothes To Kids was started by two teachers, Marie McClung and Jode Eye. One winter day, in class, Marie asked a young girl why she wasn’t wearing a jacket. The girl replied that she didn’t have a jacket so Marie called her sister, who had young children, to see if she could get a jacket for the girl. After that, the two teachers started collecting clothing donations in their garages. They received so many donations they opened a storefront in Dunedin in 2003. By 2005, they needed a larger space and moved to the Clearwater location at 1059 North Hercules Ave. This summer, a second location opened in south Pinellas County in the Twin Brooks Commons plaza at 2168 34th St. S., St. Petersburg, 34711.

“This is our first summer here,” said Colette. “We started out with 20 to 25 kids shopping per day and the number has already increased to 30 to 40 per day.”

Volunteers work the front of the store and keep things running smoothly and assisting shoppers, while others work in the stockroom tagging items and getting them ready for display.

“We have a small staff and really depend on our volunteers who are key to our organization,” said Colette. “We are always in need of volunteers.”

Donations of new and used clothing are also vital to the program’s continued success. They gratefully accept donations, providing helpful lists of what they need and items they do not accept. Those wanting to donate can drop off clothing around the back of the store by ringing a bell. When the store is closed, there is a bin for donated items.

Monetary donations are also vital to keep both locations running smoothly. Some clothing items, such as uniforms, underwear and socks are bought new. Other items, such as boy’s shoes in the most needed sizes, are difficult to obtain and must often be purchased, according to Colette.

Fundraisers such as 5Ks also raise money for the program. Blue bins are set up in many of the schools where students can donate clothing items. The organization is also trying to set up a program where high school students can volunteer to build their community service hours.

“We really fill a niche in the community,” said Colette. “No other agency in the county provides clothing for school-age kids in need free of charge. When kids feel they fit in with other kids and have clothing they feel good wearing, it boosts their confidence and self-esteem and they do better in school.”

Both stores are open year-round from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and the second and fourth Saturday of each month. To volunteer, donate or make an appointment to shop, call 727-441-5050.

For more information, go to the website at clothestokids.org or find them on Facebook at facebook.com/pages/Clothes-To-Kids/125719955830.

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