A fledgling program at Oswego East High School is helping students and their families in need with food, school supplies, clothing, toiletries and more.
The Care Closet program, fully implemented at the start of the current school year, uses discreet and anonymous measures to provide much-needed goods to students.
“This was something that was probably a little over a year or so in the works,” organizer and history teacher Stephanie Krzeminski said. The concept of the Care Closet was developed during a meeting of the school’s improvement team, during the 2017-18 school year. Krzeminski, who had served on the group’s social-emotional learning subcommittee, had seen several Internet videos on the concept and advocated for the creation of the program at OEHS.
“I started getting my bee in a bonnet about it, because year to year as a teacher, you know that you’re going to be purchasing things directly for students, directly for your classroom, but over the last couple of years in particular, it seems like some of these things have increased in need,” she said, noting the national increase in the price of notebooks, tennis shoes and other supplies. “It isn’t just a couple of educators going, ‘Oh man, things are getting more expensive, this is the world now.’”
A large amount of planning time, Krzeminski said, was devoted to setting up a space in OEHS where these necessary supplies could be available, 24/7. Research and preparation involved locating a spot in the school to use, and surveying students and families about what supplies and goods were in the most need, a process that took about one year.
While in theory some supplies are seasonal, items found in the Care Closet include clothing for infants through adults, diapers and formula, school supplies, pantry items including dry goods, paper goods, toiletries, shoes, towels, TTblankets, as well as gift cards to use for gasoline or fresh produce.
Items come into the closet through donations, from the local community, Wolf Parents program and the OEHS community. Krzeminski also set up a DonorsChoose online fundraiser that raised about $1,200 worth of materials for the program. Most of the much-needed school supplies, she added, were actually left behind by students at the end of the previous school year when cleaning out their lockers. “Our custodial staff goes through, and I was overwhelmed at what got left behind,” she said. “It’s shocking.
Organizers presented two information campaigns to students, educating them on what the Care Closet is, and how to use it. “In theory, the idea is that the Care Closet is a free service designed for our entire student population and their families,” Krzeminski said. “But truly, it’s intended for those who cannot afford those basic needs.”
If students don’t have a phone, they can contact their counselor directly in order to get access to a Google form that asks – as anonymously as possible – for the student’s ID number for communication purposes. Students with smartphones can scan the QR code on the signs throughout the school to gain access to the form.
Students then specify if the items needed are for themselves, a friend or a family member, and put a check in the designated boxes to cover all needs. If an order is submitted Monday afternoon, the order is filled Tuesday morning and dropped off at Student Services that same day.
An email is then sent to the student and the Student Services department secretary, letting them know that the package is ready to be picked up at any time. The items are placed in plain brown paper bags, so as to not draw attention to the process, and students can take advantage of different entrances and exits to the office.
“The last thing anyone wants when you’re in a position of need, is a great big sign that says ‘Guess what I just got?’ Krzeminski said. “We wanted to keep it as low-key as possible in that way.” About an average of 30 students and families have used the system, she said, with only one instance of a repeated order from an individual.
As the school year passed the halfway point, Krzeminski and student volunteers have filled out large orders an average of once a week. There currently is no rhyme or reason to requests, she said, but there is consistency, she said. “It seems to be fairly consistent, and there was a hope that it was something that would be consistently used.”
The most commonly requested items, she said, are a combination of food, school supplies, and toiletries. As the first full year of the program ends, Krzeminski expects to review requests over the summer to attempt to map out trends and anticipate future requests.
“We’ll get better at knowing how to stock our pantries, but also get ahead of what we need. That way, we’re not asking for things when that’s the season where everybody needs it,” she said.
Oswego East is not the only school in OSD 308 to use the Care Closet system. Oswego High School, Thompson Junior High School, Boulder Hill Elementary School, and Old Post Elementary School each have a similar system in place. While OHS was the first school to implement the program, OEHS was the first to feature the multi-tiered organizational system. The other schools each feature similar aspects to the program – Thompson has an entire classroom dedicated to the Care Closet, and Boulder Hill’s school psychologist gave up her office to house the closet.
As OSD 308 focuses on more trauma-informed practices when it comes to the well-being of students, Krzeminski’s hope was that each school in the district would be able to say that they have a Care Closet. She also has “daydreamed,” about creating a fund where donations could be made and disseminated throughout the district – an umbrella program.
“If there’s a school that wants to have it, money shouldn’t be the impediment to get there,” she said.