BY MATT SALIS
The huge receiving bin I stood next to as I asked Lisa questions was full of clothes all the way to the ceiling. Working alongside Lisa were six or eight volunteers, all sorting and folding clothes and putting them on the appropriate shelves so they could find their way into the hands of shoppers efficiently. As we spoke, more bags were added to the pile. Lisa and her team just smiled and waved at the clothing donor who made their task more daunting. They sorted and folded as they answered my questions because stopping to talk would have been admitting defeat to the growing pile of inbound clothes.
Lisa has decades of experience in the world of high fashion. Before this, she sold suits with price tags in the thousands of dollars at Brooks Brothers. But she gave all that up, the pressure to sell and the rewarding commission checks, for a chance to help our neighbors. Lisa Maloney is the program director at Clothes to Kids of Denver, and she considers it a promotion from her years in high end retail. I asked her why she made the move from elegant and expensive to a second-hand, donation-based organization. Her answer was simple. “This feels better.”
Passion for the Community
Clothes to Kids of Denver is tucked into a quiet corner of a shopping center that is well past its prime at 2890 South Colorado Boulevard. From the outside, they are easy to miss. But on the inside, hustling effort and enthusiastic love abound. Around the corner from the sorting and folding of the receiving room where clothing donations are taken in is the retail store where shoppers choose their items to take home. The merchandising is lovely as the store is divided into departments based on age and gender. It is the atmosphere of a quaint and pleasant retail environment although no money changes hands.
Each child in every family who qualifies (based on economic need) is given a 21 piece wardrobe. The shoppers make selections from a wide variety of size and fashion options. They even get a pair of shoes, and a jacket for when the weather turns. The little ones can pick dress-up clothes or sports jerseys from the extras section to add some fun to the otherwise necessary shopping experience.
Thousands of Lives Touched
Celebrating their tenth year in operation last year, Clothes to Kids of Denver donated over ten thousand wardrobes in 2018 through the generosity of over ten thousand volunteer hours. It takes a lot of effort to manage their $1.3 million in donations (in-kind clothing and monetary donations combined) while keeping overhead under 10%. Development Director, Val Lunka, told me two-thirds of the financial assistance comes from individual and corporate donors while private grants account for the final third.
Val told me about their fifth annual, ”Blue Jean Bash,” taking place on September 21st. The bash accounts for a sizable chunk of their annual fundraising, and raises awareness about the massive need with over 200,000 students at or below the poverty level in the Denver metro area. Tickets are $75 for the event taking place at CU South Denver in Parker, and event sponsorships are available as well.
Helping Kids Succeed
Clothing is a necessity, but the mission of Clothes to Kids is about much more than meeting a basic need. It is their goal to help kids succeed. Val explained that Clothes to Kids aims to, “prevent clothing from disrupting school success.” When kids shop and choose clothes that match current styles and help them fit in with their classmates, some of their stress and worry is eliminated and the students are free to learn and develop like all the other students. Anna Theisen from Denver Public Schools told me that a lack of necessities that allows kids to feel normal is a major factor in truancy and poor academic performance. When those needs are met, students are free to thrive both socially and educationally.
Clothes to Kids isn’t just meeting a basic need. They are giving kids a chance to learn and grow and break the cycle of poverty by making the fight for survival and acceptance a little less challenging.
I was introduced to Clothes to Kids by Alison Atayde who started volunteering with the organization almost a decade ago after a 30 year career in DPS. Alison remembers her first day. When the staff at Clothes to Kids found out Alison spoke Spanish, she quickly became a most valuable volunteer for the fledgling new 501c3 trying to serve Denver’s growing population.
Since her first shift, Alison has put in many volunteer hours sorting clothes and helping shoppers find items to meet their needs. She has even had her own children join her in the store and learn the value of serving their community.
Alison is a teacher first, but her dedication to her students extends far beyond the classroom. Like most teachers I know, Alison has never considered her role serving kids to be a job. She does it out of love. When I asked her why with all the places she could have an impact in the community she chose to volunteer at Clothes to Kids all those years ago, she cocked her head to the side and looked a little surprised. “Haven’t you been listening to what we’re telling you about this place?” she asked. “Why wouldn’t I want to spend as much time as I can here?”
Alison, Val and Lisa are all right. I can see why they want to be in that quiet but crowded little corner in University Hills South Shopping Center packed in with volunteers and clothes piled to the ceiling. It feels good to be there and be a part of their mission. The clothing is just a tool to achieve their goal. It isn’t about sizes or colors or fashion so much. At Clothes to Kids of Denver, it is about helping kids succeed and changing lives. For more information or to make a monetary or clothing donation, check out their website at ClothesToKidsDenver.org.