JT’s Cupboard, an in-school clothing donation program and the latest initiative of a student-run community service organization at Unadilla Valley Central School, opened its doors last week with a promise to provide free clothing items to any student in need.
“Take what you need, leave what you don’t, give what you can,” reads a handwritten chalkboard sign at the entrance of a classroom in the school’s secondary wing.
The store was named and dedicated in honor of Jamie Thompson, a former member of the school board who died earlier in the school year, according to Kevin Nial, the district’s student advocate and adviser to Project Synergy, the club that organized the program.
Members of Thompson’s family were invited to a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday, along with administrators who supported the project and custodians who helped prepare the space and paint the room. Student organizers donned some of the prom dresses available for rent and served snacks made by students in the home and careers class as visitors and classmates toured the renovated space.
JT’s Cupboard is open every day for students to browse the racks during the midday study lab time. Clothing items are free to any student in any grade level, Nial said; some items were donated brand-new, and pre-worn clothing is laundered in the home and careers room.
The store will also offer personal hygiene products. Formal wear donated by McLaughlin’s Department Store is available on loan. The clothing store also donated hangers and display racks from its recently closed Oneonta location, Nial said.
Club President Raylynne Kuhn said she was inspired to start the program after noticing kids who didn’t have sneakers or other clothing items. She and her fellow club members said they found that some students were simply in search of a nice shirt to wear for graduation or on basketball game days.
“This is the biggest thing we’ve ever done,” said Paige Catena, club vice president.
Club members started the project at the beginning of the school year with a proposal submitted to school administrators, who required that the students conduct research and thoroughly plan the project, Nial said.
The group visited similar operations at Bainbridge-Guilford Central School and First Presbyterian Church in Delhi to learn about store layout and the finer points of collecting and sorting donations, said Alyssa Manwarren, club treasurer. They faced months of uncertainty over the location, finally settling on an empty classroom formerly used for agriculture classes, and spent their free periods painting the cinderblock walls pastel yellow and violet.
When Bainbridge-Guilford first opened its store, students were hesitant to enter, Nial said, but the Unadilla Valley community quickly embraced the idea.
“We’ve already had so many kids wanting to come in,” he said. “We’re not seeing any of that, where kids are worrying about what others think.”
Jordyn Riley, club secretary, said she shopped for a dress for the Snow Ball at thrift stores in Oneonta and Norwich, but “you just couldn’t find nice things.”
Nial said he wasn’t aware of any thrift store or clothing donation program in the surrounding community, but for several years, the school nurse’s office distributed clothing items but couldn’t keep up with the demand.
Unadilla Valley is home to about 800 kids in grades K through 12 and is considered a high-poverty school district, according to Nial. About one in five residents under the age of 18 lives in poverty, according to 2017 data from the American Communities Survey, and this year is the first the entire school is eligible for free meals through the National School Lunch Program.
The students said they are trying to keep the store stocked with current styles and will accept bulk donations of new or lightly used trendy clothing in the fall.
Next year, the organizers are hoping to expand the hours, and several teachers offered to run the store during their planning time, Nial said.
The founding members started Project Synergy as sixth-graders with nowhere to sit at lunch, Raylynne said. Five years later, membership has grown to about a dozen, and the group was recently contacted by the New Berlin Rotary Club and offered sponsorship through the organization’s Interact program, Nial said.
The club meets once a week during lunch and has also hosted other community events and activities throughout the year, including a “Night of Fun” carnival around Halloween, holiday-themed karaoke and Fun Friday challenges. The group also administers a backpack program, sending home food during long weekends and school breaks to families in need; sponsors an annual No-Shave November fundraiser for cancer research and painted a Mommy and Me room at the New Berlin Public Library earlier in the year.
“The ultimate goal is to do anything we can to improve the culture of the school,” Nial said.
Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.