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As EdNC travels around the state of North Carolina visiting schools and communities, people tell us stories. Some we can share and some we just can’t. 

The day my fictionalized story, Second School, ran, Dallas Bonavita, the executive director of Note in the Pocket, contacted me. Note in the Pocket is an agency that provides school-appropriate clothing to students in Wake County in need.

I just finished reading your story, Second School. It was forwarded to me by a friend at a partnering agency who has heard me tell a very similar story about two real brothers attending school in Wake County. 

As I’m sure you are aware, in 2014-15 in Wake County alone, we had over 51,000 children apply and qualify for the free- and reduced-priced lunch program. At this time, Note in the Pocket provides clothes to students in Wake County that need weather appropriate, correctly sized clothes and shoes for school. It is our hope to create a model that can be replicated in other North Carolina counties.

In Second School, I was not writing about the brothers she served. I had heard a different, but similar, story. Stories like these are pervasive across our state. Dallas invited me to visit Note in the Pocket.

Access to clothing — and the impact on student achievement — is not an issue for our legislature.

This is an issue for us as a community, as a state.

The Corporation for National and Community Service tracks volunteering and civic engagement in the 50 states. In our state, 26.6 percent of residents volunteer, ranking 28th nationally. Informal volunteering, like helping a neighbor, has always been our strong suit with 62.9 percent of our residents engaged.

But, of those of us that volunteer, just 15.3 percent of us help collect and distribute clothes.

C’mon, the North Carolina I know and love can do better.

And so Dallas and her crew at Note in the Pocket have stepped up to show us how to do the hard work it takes to get kids the clothing they need.

When I walked into Note in the Pocket, Mrs. Donna, a volunteer, was training a teenage youth group from a local church. They will be working at Note in the Pocket all week. She started with a story…

Sometimes it is a shirt, sometimes it is pants, sometimes as in Mrs. Donna’s story it is a dress. Which article of clothing brings happiness to a child is not what is important.

The exclamation — “I am wearing this to school tomorrow” — is what matters.

As Dallas tells the story, Note in the Pocket was started as a family ministry by Susan Reiland. Susan’s daughter graduated from UNC with a job teaching in a school that served 90 percent free and reduced price lunch students. “How do I teach these children,” she asked her mom. The students didn’t even have the clothes they needed for school. “They are not prepared to learn.” 

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Susan knew that was something they could do something about so she started with winter coats for her daughter’s kindergartners. The first time they sent coats home with the students, half of them were returned the next day. The parents of the students couldn’t believe the coat was a gift. The school social worker sent the coats home again with the students and a “note in the pocket” explaining the coat was a gift from the community — and so the organization was born. Susan went on to run Note in the Pocket out of her house…for six years!

Dallas met Susan, and she says, “I fell in love with Susan. That’s my story.” Susan says, “she rescued me.”

They thought they could bring in clothes once a month and send clothes out once a month and meet the need. Dallas says, “God said, that’s cute. No.” It was never the plan to become a countywide agency. But nobody else is doing this work, and so they did.

In 2013, Note in the Pocket became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and in 2014, they served 2,380 people, delivering 48,950 articles of clothing, valued at close to $350,000. The organization is moving into 5,600 square feet this fall and even that won’t be enough to meet the clothing needs of students in this county alone.

This is not easy work. It takes a lot of space to accommodate the clothes and volunteers needed to get the clothes to the students within two weeks of being notified by a social worker that a child is in need.

Quality control happens at every step — as the clothes are sorted, sized, inventoried, and then packaged for the kids. Quality control is easy — would you be happy to give or receive this article of clothing as a gift?

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Each child receives a package of clothing in their specific sizes that can be mixed and matched for two weeks worth of outfits. Volunteers have to know the ins and outs of student fashion — acid washed is cool but worn out is not. New socks and undies are included, and the bags are delivered by Note in the Pocket to the referring school or agency. They never know the names of the students they serve.

Like my story in Second School, stories drive their work — a mom that used silver ducktape each night to bind her child’s shoes together; a student that wore the only five shirts he had all at once during the winter to keep warm, rotating the top shirt to avoid being noticed.

Dallas says,

“it is unacceptable that children in North Carolina are limited in their educational and social development due to a lack of appropriate clothes.”

Note in the Pocket hopes one day to be able to provide a starter kit to help other communities start and operate similar organizations on their own. What ideas do you have to make a difference for our students needing clothing?

 

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.