Publication: Women's Feature Service
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 59130
Journal code: WNFS

Cleveland (WeNews\WFS) - Standing in her basement in Orange Village, an affluent suburb in Cleveland, Ohio, high school student Zoe Baris took stock of the mounting piles of kids' clothes to be sorted, labeled and boxed. "Oh my God. It's overwhelming. There's so much stuff down here, so many clothes," Baris said.

She was pulling out a girl's size 10 bright pink down jacket with a purple fleece-lined hood and a zipper with a heart pull. On the floor were matching pink snow boots. On the ping-pong table nearby were hats, scarves and accessories.

The high-end clothing items had been donated to Share What You Wear, a programme that Baris and her childhood friend, Samantha Zabell started in 2007, as sophomores at Orange High School.

The youngsters collect fashionable items from friends and neighbours in a wealthier corner of the community and once a year - in time for back-to-school shopping - make them available to financially-strapped grandparents, who are the primary caretakers of their children's children.

"They turn an old car barn into an old-fashioned department store. They take the kids by the hand and help them shop. It's a lot of fun," said Natasha Pietrocola, who worked as supervisor of the Grandparent-Kinship Care Program of the Department of Senior and Adult Services for Cuyahoga County. The programme has been working with Share What You Wear and its sponsoring organisation, the Cleveland section of the National Council of Jewish Women, ever since it began.

When shoppers leave the one-day boutique, their bags contain neatly folded clothes and a little note that reads: 'Thanks for shopping at Share What You Wear, Zoe and Samantha'. "I wanted to help children and I wanted it to be a real community-based thing. One of the fun things I do with my mom is to go shopping," said Baris.

It's been over three years since Share What You Wear began and it has utilised the Grandparent-Kinship Care Program client database to identify grandparenting families who can benefit from this effort. Once the families are chosen, appointments are made for them to go to the eastside location for the annual shopping day. In the fall of 2009, when Pietrocola was supervising the Grandparent-Kinship Care Program, appointments for grandparents of 165 children had been booked.

Ohio had 88,000 grandparent or kinship caregivers in the 2000 census, according to Pietrocola, with 12,000 in the Cleveland area alone. The parents of the children may be absent for any number of reasons: death, illness, incarceration, addiction, abandonment or an inability to parent. It is estimated that 70 per cent of the kinship caregivers are single grandmothers; others are grandparent couples, aunts and a few single grandfathers or uncles.

The children in grandparent care would be placed in the foster care system if it were not for relatives stepping in. But the grandparents and kin caregivers are not eligible for the same benefits as foster parents. According to Pietrocola, foster parents in Ohio receive over $600 per month per child, while a grandparent caregiver is eligible to receive little more than a third of that in assistance. "There is definitely a financial disparity. I don't think a lot of people - even in our county - understand," she said. Many of the grandparents live on fixed incomes, Pietrocola added, but face identical costs as wage-earning couples with children.

The gap in kinship resources startled members of the local chapter the National Council of Jewish Women, said Debbie Bloom, the organisation's former president. "We became aware of the children in the kinship programme and that it was mainly grandparents who were raising family members with very little means," she said.

The group opened a kinship care project, one of 20 service programmes, including an adult designer clothing sale that raises funds for those in need and on which Baris worked with her mother and grandmother. When Baris and Zabell proposed a free clothing programme for youth, combining it with kinship care was a natural fit. "My parents instilled that it's important to give back. It's not just adults who can start something," said Zabell.

Throughout the year, the pair recruits friends to help with the constant inflow of bags to Baris' basement, where everything is neatly organised on shelves built from castoffs of a defunct department store. "The biggest thing is sorting everything and taking inventory," said Zabell. "We get T-shirts, jeans, pants, sunglasses, dresses, skirts, suits. We take every item out and make sure it's not stained or ripped. We don't give them anything that we wouldn't wear."

Provided with play dollars, each child is permitted to "buy" 10 to 15 gently-worn clothing items from the Share What You Wear collection. Hard-worn items go to the Salvation Army, but in 2009 that still left 65 boxes of 5,000 prime items for the fall shopping day, which was held in a social services centre on the edge of Cleveland. They had distributed more than 2,000 items the first year.

"This is definitely something that could be done elsewhere," said Faye Bass, who mentors the project for the local National Council of Jewish Women. "A lot of schools want students to do community service. With so many people in need, this is quite an eye-opener for those in more affluent communities, that people don't just go to the mall or they don't have the luxury to buy what they want."

Baris and Zabell continue being a part of the programme even though they are now enrolled in University of Michigan and Northwestern University, respectively. Zabell's sister, Allyson, a senior at Orange, is responsible for the collection.

On the Share What You Wear shopping day, dozens of adult and teen volunteers emerge from the ranks of the National Council of Jewish Women, some serving as personal shoppers. In 2009, Zabell recalled assisting a seven-year-old girl with one remaining voucher. "She said, 'I don't know what to do because I like this dress, but I really need these socks.' Usually, it's the adults who ask about socks." So, Zabell threw the socks into the deal. "Her face lit up to the point that I get goose bumps thinking about it."

By arrangement with Women's eNews.

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(Cynthia L. Cooper, a freelance writer in New York City, grew up in Cleveland. For original story, log on to:

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