Kimberly Britt is trying to eliminate the phrase “What do you need?” from her vocabulary.
When students at George Washington High School enter the Family Room, stocked with clothing and other household supplies, she wants to ask them what they would like or want instead. Or better yet, the school climate support staff member will let the students browse on their own, choosing the clothing items they want like they were browsing a clothing store.
“I don’t want them to feel that they’re less than or they have less than,” she said. “I want them to understand that the resources are here.”
The Family Room, an addition that arrived at the community school in January, sees items ranging from coats, dresses, sweaters, t-shirts, sneakers and much more hanging from racks or on display in an empty classroom, like a typical clothing store. It was implemented to provide in-need students and their families with clothing and other household items.
About 89-percent of the student body is economically disadvantaged, said community school coordinator Caitlyn Boyle, meaning some families can’t afford a lot of clothing. On top of that, the school has a large immigrant population, with approximately 70 countries and 30 languages being represented in the student body in 2017. This means some students coming from warmer countries will arrive with no winter jackets or other clothing for the colder months.
“The first couple kids would try things on and make fun of it, but I noticed they were walking away with it,” Britt said. Most students do end up leaving with something, Britt said, even if not at first. Some will come in, look and move items around and leave empty-handed, only to return at the end of the day saying they left their book bag or something similar.
“Then they’ll take what they need and go,” Britt said. “I need to make it very clear to them, this is for them. They can take what they need, they can take what they want.”
Britt, whose son attends the school, started volunteering at community meetings and eventually got involved in the creation of the Family Room. Donations from Proclamation Community Church helped launch the initiative, and donations from staff members, students and community members keep it going. It was first located in a closet attached to the school’s cafeteria, where Boyle and Britt said the clothing was simply piled on the floor.
“I felt we had to restore some dignity to this,” Boyle said. “Sifting through trash bags of clothing, I can’t even imagine how that would feel for someone.”
“To go from that to this was a beautiful thing,” she said. Students from the school’s marketing class helped arrange the items to appear like a full-fledged store after a few weeks to give the initiative the space and atmosphere it deserved.
“I explained to them how it looks is important, why being on the hanger the right way is important, and you don’t put anything out that’s wrinkled,” Britt said. “You don’t want to give someone something you wouldn’t be proud to wear.”
Somewhere between 100 and 200 students have taken items from the room since it opened, Britt and Boyle estimate, though it’s hard to keep track of an exact number when the room is available to students for the entire school day and after school.
Students have picked up prom dresses and nicer clothing for job interviews, or just typical clothing for daily wear. Britt recalled one student coming in and taking smaller size items for his younger siblings, and one student who came in requesting clothing to give to a homeless man.
“The number [of students helped] is never going to feel high enough, simply because of the fact I still see students in need,” she said. “It’s not that I’m not proud of what we’ve done, it’s just that I see the need for more.”
Britt’s efforts in running the room haven’t gone unnoticed. She was recently named a community school champion by the Mayor’s Office of Education, one of 12 individuals who were noticed and honored for their contribution to the community school initiative. She was recognized for being a member of the school’s student advisories council in addition to running the Family Room.
“I felt appreciated and seen. You have days where you wonder if it’s really mattering or making a difference,” she said. “The award is saying, yeah, it does matter. Yeah, it’s making a difference.”
Next year Britt hopes to get more parent volunteers and students involved in addition to spreading the word so many students are aware of the resources.
The Family Room is available to students all times during the school day and with limited availability over the summer. To visit the Family Room or give donations, contact Britt or Boyle at KBritt@PhilaSD.org or Caitlyn.Boyle@phila.gov.