CLEVELAND (WOMENSENEWS)--Standing in her basement in Orange Village, an affluent suburb here, 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 are donated to Share What You Wear, a program that Baris and her childhood friend, Samantha Zabell, now both high school seniors, started in 2007.
The teens collect fashionable items from friends and neighbors 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, supervisor of the Grandparent-Kinship Care Program of the Department of Senior and Adult Services for Cuyahoga County. The program has worked with Share What You Wear and its sponsoring organization, the Cleveland section of the National Council of Jewish Women, for the past two years.
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."
Outfitting 165 Children
"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.
For the past two years, Pietrocola and five staff members have used a client database to identify grandparenting families who can benefit from the program. They then make appointments for them to go to the eastside location for the annual shopping day.
The Grandparent-Kinship Care Program made appointments for grandparents of 165 children in fall 2009.
Provided with play dollars, each child was permitted to "buy" 10 to 15 clothing items, all lightly-worn, from Share What You Wear.
"We're working with grandparents and relatives who are raising children where the mother and father are not involved," said Pietrocola. "They are a group that needs some assistance and services."
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.
Pietrocola estimates that 70 percent 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.
Kin Get Less Help
Foster parents in Ohio receive $632 per month per child, while a grandparent caregiver is eligible to receive little more than a third of that in assistance--$259 per month for a single child and only $627 for five children, said Pietrocola.
"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 said, 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 organization's current president.
"We became aware of the children in the kinship program and that it was mainly grandparents who were raising family members with very little means," said Bloom.
The group opened a kinship care project, one of 20 service programs, 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 program 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 recruit friends to help with the constant inflow of bags to Baris' basement, where everything is neatly organized 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."
65 Boxes, 5,000 Items
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 center on the edge of Cleveland.
"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."
Bass and the teens are now interviewing younger students to carry the program forward, although Baris and Zabell vow to continue participating even after they enter college.
The National Council of Jewish Women is also identifying new partners for its kinship care program since the county is closing Pietrocola's division in 2010.
On the Share What You Wear shopping day, dozens of adult and teen volunteers emerged from the ranks of the National Council of Jewish Women, as well as high school friends, some serving as personal shoppers.
Zabell assisted a 7-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."
Zabell threw the socks into the deal. "Her face lit up to the point that I get goose bumps thinking about it."
Cynthia L. Cooper, a freelance writer in New York City, grew up in Cleveland.
For more information:
National Council of Jewish Women, Cleveland Section