As the saying goes, clothes make the man. They also make the 12-year-old girl or the middle-school boy. Like most proverbs, “clothes make the man” has stuck around because of the kernel of truth behind it. Parents may tell their children, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” And schoolteachers may warn kids not to judge a book by its cover. But ours is a culture that values appearance – especially among pre-teens – and looking good on the outside can sometimes be a catalyst for feeling good on the inside. Sometimes that confidence is necessary to pursue a dream, finish school, or just get through a hard day.
The acknowledgment of that reality is what fuels Keely Brown and Lindsey Wing, two Amarillo moms-turned-philanthropists behind Colorful Closets. This newly formed nonprofit provides clothing for needy children within the Amarillo Independent School District. The organization collects well-cared-for, second-hand clothing from Amarillo families. Working closely with AISD social workers and counselors who help identify specific needs, Colorful Closets then redistributes the clothing to kids who can use the confidence that comes from a well-fitting wardrobe.
Purging Closets The duo didn’t set out to become co-executive directors of a nonprofit. Initially, they wanted to start a small business.
Brown and her husband have four children in elementary school. Wing and her husband have three kids. Last year, the two moms saw their youngest preschoolers transition into kindergarten. “We’re good friends and we panicked together,” Brown says, laughing. “What are we going to do when our babies are in school? We thought we would feel like empty-nesters.”
Kids grow fast, and most parents are familiar with the annual cleaning out of children’s closets. Both Brown and Wing had been through several seasons of closet reorganization and thought helping families clear out and remake closets might fill their time and help them earn a little money.
“We just wanted to organize closets,” Brown says. “We got into some [customers’] closets and there was a lot of purging. What are we going to do with all these clothes?” Some families distribute hand-me-downs from one sibling to the next, or give clothing to a younger cousin or friend. But not every family knows someone to inherit that unwanted clothing.
As the two were making that realization, a related need began to present itself. The Brown and Wing families’ children attend schools in a couple of mostly middle-class neighborhoods in Amarillo. At the same time, they knew that a few of their kids’ classmates came from families with less-than-secure financial situations. Some had been refugees. Others were simply struggling. “We’d see the constant need with the kids and families falling through the cracks,” says Brown.
During a play date, she noticed a 6-year-old in her son’s kindergarten class who wore a tiny, fleece pullover sized for a 3-year-old. Or a third-grade boy who was wearing jeans designed for girls. “They were five inches too short,” she says. “These babies were wearing whatever they could find.”
Brown and other moms at the school would take it upon themselves to pick up the slack whenever possible. “We would be acting on it, like going to Walmart and picking up three extra pairs of pants because I noticed a little boy who needed some new pants. I realized I was doing that so frequently.”
Wing, a former kindergarten teacher, had similar experiences at her own kids’ school. “We started talking to some people at AISD and realizing that there are resources for some children, but the older you get, the less resources there are,” she says. “We noticed sometimes parents were doing everything they can to make ends meet. They don’t always meet the requirements for those resources and they are struggling.”
For instance, the Gilliland Family Foundation’s clothing van travels from school to school supplying new clothes and shoes for elementary-aged children, but a version of that van doesn’t yet exist for children in sixth grade and up. “We wanted to fill the gap,” Wing says.
Suddenly, they had found an answer to the question of What will we do with all these clothes?
“We started asking our friends, and friends of friends, ‘Hey, when you clean out your kids’ closet, we want your hand-me-downs. Put them on our porch,’” Brown says. That was around a year ago, and during the summer of 2016, Brown and Wing kept discovering a constant supply of gently used clothing appearing on their porches. “We would get trash bags full of them,” says Brown. “We decided this could really happen.”
Going Public In January, Brown and Wing officially abandoned their closet-organizing enterprise to start one that helps fill closets. Housed in a corner of the Eveline Rivers Christmas Project building at Third and Jefferson, the Colorful Closets space is crisscrossed with clothing racks. These are filled with shirts and pants and skirts and pullovers sorted by size. Working with AISD staff, they put together full outfits for children in the school system. All the used clothing is donated from the community – and regularly includes nice, brand-name items.
“When we get clothes, we go through and sort everything,” says Wing. “We are very picky about what we keep. We want things that our kids would wear.” When a school counselor learns of a child who needs a few articles of clothing, Colorful Closets gets a call or email.
Wing describes a typical call: a seventh-grade boy who doesn’t just need a new pair of pants, but an entire wardrobe supplement. Wing and Brown will then “go shopping” on the racks of clothing they’ve accumulated. “For an order yesterday, we grabbed a pair of cargo shorts, two pairs of athletic shorts, and two pairs of jeans,” Wing says on a recent Thursday morning. “We pair that with eight or nine tops.” These include T-shirts, polo shirts, and even an oxford-style dress shirt – or a dress for a female recipient – if one is available in the child’s size. The clothing items are selected to create matching outfits rather than a random selection of colors or patterns. The women then clean, press and fold the items before delivering them.
“We tie the outfits up with a ribbon and a gift tag and put them in a gift bag,” Wing says. The bags are large, reusable grocery bags bearing the Colorful Closets logo. They deliver the bags to the requesting counselor, who then delivers it to the needy student. “It’s like a package, something exciting for them to get,” says Wing. “Many of them will show up the next day in those clothes.”
Brown tells of a fifth-grade girl who had blossomed early and was already the size of most adult women. She stood out in the halls of her school, and as a result had become shy and withdrawn. The school let Colorful Closets know of the need, and Brown and Wing located clothing that would fit an older student but still had the playfulness appropriate for a girl in elementary classes. After pulling together an outfit, Brown spoke to the girl’s principal. “She told me this girl had been very shy and never looked up or made eye contact. But we gave her the clothing on Friday and on Monday she came to school with her head held high. She was just a different kid. It’s stories like that – we know we’re doing what we’ve been called to do. It energizes us. That’s a gift in itself for us.”
Rebuilding Hope Delivering the clothing as a gift, in a reusable bag, reflects an intentional decision on the directors’ part. “We don’t want to make them feel inferior,” Wing says of students receiving Colorful Closets’ mini-wardrobes. “We package it as a gift so they feel like it’s a treasure. We’re trying to rebuild hope and dignity.”
That’s also why they are extremely picky about the types of donated clothing they keep (see sidebar). Articles that don’t pass inspection are bundled up and passed along to other agencies. “We feel like if we gave them a shirt with a snag on it, it might tell them, ‘We’re done with this so you can have it, because you have nothing,’” Wing says. That’s the wrong message, which is why only high-quality brands and well-kept clothing make the cut. Rather than “a random bag of hand-me-downs that might work for somebody,” each bag is a carefully selected, matching assembly chosen by two mothers who put a lot of thought and care into the process.
Even though Wing and Brown don’t personally interact with the recipients of the clothing, they hope each package will communicate that someone cares for the child. “It’s our way of giving them a hug without physically being able to touch them, because we go through counselors and social workers,” Wing explains. Due to the hardships their families have faced, many of the children only wear what’s immediately available, and have never worn carefully styled clothing. Just knowing that someone picked out an outfit for them does wonders for their self-esteem. “Some of these babies don’t have the momma to say ‘Here, throw this on with your polka dot skirt,’” Wing says. “This is our way of nurturing them.”
Though they are close to finishing their first school year, Colorful Closets hopes to be able to nurture more and more children as school staff members become aware of what they do. “The larger we grow, the more we can serve. The teachers are the main ones we really need because they are the ones who see the kids, to let the counselors know they need a warm coat,” says Wing. “We want to stretch that compassion across the entire school system and for the community to realize that kids are in need.”
The organization will be collecting clothing all summer long at special drop-off sites throughout Amarillo (see sidebar). “We want Amarillo to feel like this is their closet,” Brown says. “Because of people’s donations, we are, all together, clothing kids all over the city. We are able to build wardrobes and build self-esteem and help these kids feel like they are no different than our own.”
How to Donate
Colorful Closets accepts donations of clothing and toiletries at the following drop-off locations. All donations should be placed in a bag and clearly labeled “Colorful Closets.”
U.S. Cleaners locations: 2706 Wolflin Ave. 5747 Amarillo Blvd. West 4502 S. Bell St. 6014 S. Western St.
Cheer Texas, 9200 Soncy Road
Donations are also accepted on Wednesdays and Thursdays at Eveline Rivers Christmas Project, 314 S. Jefferson St., between 10 and 11:30 a.m. Use the red volunteer door on Southwest Fourth Avenue.
What to Donate
Colorful Closets accepts gently worn, age-appropriate clothing for students from pre-kindergarten age through high school (including adult sizes). New purchases are also appreciated – especially pants, which tend to wear out quickly. As the organization stocks up for the 2017-2018 school year, Brown and Wing are hoping to build a base of new girl’s leggings, boys’ and girls’ jeans, athletic shorts and pants, and new socks and undergarments.
Other needs include: • Hangers • Laundry services/detergent/dryer sheets • New washer/dryer • Toiletries (deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes) • New baby clothing (sizes infant to 4T) • Copy machine • Office printer • Monetary donations for gift bags, bulk clothing purchases, and overhead
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.