Denver resident Dee David was facing financial challenges when she enrolled her children in a new school. As a welcome, the school gave her a voucher for Clothes To Kids of Denver, a nonprofit that provides free clothing to low-income and in-crisis students in metro Denver.
“They just said to call, make an appointment and the kids can go shop,” she said. “I really had no idea what to expect.”
When David brought her three kids—Zoey, 14; Ryley, 12; and Noah, 4—to Clothes To Kids of Denver, they were pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the clothing.
“With middle school and teen girls, looking nice is a very important thing,” she said.
Volunteers helped them each pick out a week’s worth of clothing, and the kids put on a fun fashion show.
“For my kids, it’s the first time we’ve ever had to use that service. At first we were like, ‘Oh no, how’d we get here?’ But the ladies there were so unbelievably helpful, bringing stuff to my daughters, saying, ‘Try this, try that. Here’s another one to try.’ They went to town,” she said with a laugh. “It wasn’t just an experience for the kids. I felt like everyone got a real experience out of it.”
Providing a fun and dignified shopping experience is a core value of Clothes To Kids of Denver, which was founded in 2008 and has given away more than one million pieces of clothing to metro Denver students.
“We’re serving kids who are enrolled in school, whether they’re enrolled in preschool or whether they’re up to age 21 and working on their GEDs,” said Valerie Lunka, executive director of Clothes To Kids of Denver. “We know of kids who actually don’t go to school because they don’t have the clothes to wear, or they go to school and they’re distracted because they’re not looking like their peers. It can be such a distraction and such a barrier to success in school.”
So Clothes To Kids of Denver tries to make services as accessible as possible. For instance, students eligible for the federal free and reduced-price school meals program automatically qualify—which includes over 200,000 children in the metro area—as well as children in foster care. Schools, nonprofits, government agencies and places of worship refer kids for vouchers.
“On rare occasions, we’ll get that family whose house burned down in the night, and we’re available to help them out,” she added.
When students qualify, they make an appointment to shop at Clothes To Kids of Denver so they’ll receive individualized attention—as much or as little as they like. Each shopper picks out an entire “wardrobe”: a week’s worth of clothes that includes five new pairs of socks, five new pairs of underwear, five tops, four bottoms, a coat, a pair of shoes, a bra and an extra skirt or dress if need be.
“Everything should feel like a store, except there’s no price tags and no cash registers,” Lunka said.
The organization’s eight employees and more than 300 active volunteers sort through gently used clothing donated by the community. Lunka said donations are always welcome, with the caveat, “Would you give it to your friend?”
“We want people to be picky because kids are picky, and this is about the dignity of the experience of shopping at Clothes To Kids,” she said. “It’s about the dignity of walking into school and not being embarrassed.”
There’s obviously a big need for warm coats in winter, and a year-round need for shoes, since kids are often judged by their shoes.
“Shoes are really valued,” she said. “They make a big statement.”
Lunka said there can be a misconception that people can only donate children’s clothes, but there’s a need for clothing of all sizes since some students are 21 years old. Also, bras are now a core part of the wardrobe.
“With young women, not having the proper bra can just be a real detriment,” she said. “If you don’t have that bra, then there can be shame associated with that, and discomfort.”
After selecting the core parts of their wardrobe, students can pick as many “extras” as they like, which include books, jewelry, backpacks, pajamas, swimsuits and soccer cleats. People can donate 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the nonprofit’s location at 2890 S. Colorado Blvd., Unit M-3.
Volunteers and financial donations are also always welcome. Lunka said about $50 buys one complete wardrobe. In 2018, the nonprofit provided over 10,000 wardrobes to students, and gave away its 50,000th wardrobe since its founding.
“Denver is doing well and our economy’s strong, but there’s still a huge need here,” she said.
Some national companies support Clothes To Kids of Denver, such as Bombas, which donated 50,000 pairs of socks last summer. The national nonprofit I Support the Girls donated nearly 3,000 bras when Clothes To Kids of Denver added them to the core wardrobe in 2019.
Lunka is grateful for support at both the national and local level. Volunteers from many local groups, from Xcel Energy to Girl Scout troops, help Clothes To Kids of Denver thrive.
“We’re so grateful to the Denver community for embracing our mission and bolstering it up,” she said. “We’re really, really lucky.”
Clothes To Kids of Denver
2890 S. Colorado Blvd., Unit M-3
Denver, CO 80222
Award-winning journalist Jen Reeder writes frequently about nonprofit organizations. Her work has appeared in Family Circle, BBC News, PBS’s Next Avenue, the "TODAY" show's website, HuffPost, Best Friends Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor and many other publications.
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