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Alethea Butler has worked with Jennifer Smith, right, at The Giving Closet Project this summer to ensure more children on Jacksonville's Northside have access to clothes that fit ahead of the 2023-24 academic year. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

Jax nonprofits ensure students have the means to succeed

Published on August 11, 2023 at 2:47 pm

Jennifer Smith worked in enough under-resourced schools to understand that educating the whole child includes providing the equipment and supplies for their success.

When she founded The Giving Closet Project in 2016, Smith wanted to provide more resources for children in the underfunded areas she once taught. The nonprofit served 2,500 students during the last academic year and expects to surpass that number this year with its partnership with the Jacksonville Black Chamber of Commerce.

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On Saturday, The Giving Closet Project will hold a clothing giveaway at Families of Slain Children in Durkeeville. Donations will be available between noon and 3 p.m.

“When a student comes to school and there is a lack of clothing, food or shelter, that’s going to have a direct correlation with how they perform in the classroom,” said Smith, a University of North Florida alumna who taught in elementary schools Out East and in Northwest Jacksonville for more than a decade.

The Giving Closet Project receives referrals from schools to provide clothing to families in need.

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The Jacksonville Black Chamber is bringing a two-pronged approach to assist under-resourced schools this academic year. Its Pack Our Schools Initiative provides school supplies and other needs through its relationship with Smith. Its Adopt A School program seeks to leverage the community pride its membership has in their alma maters and encourage donations of treasure, time and talent.

Candace Lindsey serves as the vice president of the Black chamber. Though her children are no longer school age, she remembers having to choose between a school supply list and a grocery list.

“There were times when I was in undergrad — and my children are always my top priority — when those lists would come out, it was almost anxiety time for me,” Lindsey said. “Making sure that other mothers and families and households are not experiencing that is huge.”

Last month, the National Retail Federation projected record-setting spending for back-to-school shopping this year. Its research found families with students in elementary, middle or high school will spend on average $890 dollars this year.

At $697 dollars, prices for educational books and supplies in June — the most recent month Bureau of Labor Statistics data is available — were down 2.7% from the same time in 2022. That price was fractionally above the $695 average for educational books and supplies in June 2021, when the inflation rate began to increase.

Jennifer Smith is the founder of The Giving Closet Project. The nonprofit has worked to provide clothes to school-age children in need since 2016. During the 2022-23 academic year, Smith says the organization served 2,500 students. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

However, with essentials like food and gas prices remaining high, families have been forced to make choices.

“The reality is the first few weeks of school there are thousands of students who aren’t in the classroom because they don’t have uniforms, they don’t have school supplies or a backpack, and it just keeps increasing,” Smith said.

School supplies are only part of the equation to help students in some of Jacksonville’s poorest ZIP codes enter the year on equal footing.

This week, the Jacksonville-based nonprofit Renewing Dignity announced it will provide free feminine hygiene products at 30 Title I schools within the Duval County School District.

Renewing Dignity was founded in 2019 with a quest to increase the access to menstrual products for low-income people in the region. In the 2022-23 academic year, it launched a pilot program that placed free period products at Ribault Middle and Ribault High schools.

“Duval County is leading this important work in Florida,” Renewing Dignity founder and president Jan Healy wrote in a statement. Students in Title I secondary schools now have access to basic health necessities that help them “stay in school and focus on learning and growing — rather than worrying about how they are going to get through the day or week,” Healy said.

Title I is a U.S. Department of Education designation that provides additional federal funds and resources to schools where at least 40% of its students come from low-income families.

Regardless of one’s background, not having the means to purchase properly fitting clothes can take its toll on student performance.

Alethea Butler knows how much properly fitting clothes can improve a teenager’s self-esteem. The 17-year-old Northside resident will start her junior year this fall.

“Nobody really understands the impact that small things have, until you’re the one in those shoes,” Butler said. “Yes, I may be a straight-A student, but my A’s don’t matter if, behind closed doors, I can’t even get myself out of bed. The way I look at myself determines how far I think I can go in my future.”

Butler has worked with Smith and The Giving Closet Project over the summer and plans to do so this fall as well. The Giving Closet Project is not alone in preparing Duval County students for the upcoming academic year.

Wolfson Children’s Hospital provided giveaways for students in Sherwood, North Shore and Lake Forest neighborhoods last week. And, on Saturday, 121 Financial Credit Union will provide school supplies for unhoused students and low-income students in Brentwood at Sulzbacher Village between 10 a.m. and noon.

Butler says she is surprised how many organizations stepped forward to support students.

“For someone out there, other than just me, or my direct family members, to actually care about what goes on inside my head, and not what I produce, it takes a weight off your shoulders.”


author image Reporter Will Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. He previously reported for the Jacksonville Business Journal. And before that, he spent more than a decade as a sports reporter at The St. Augustine Record, Victoria (Texas) Advocate and the Tallahassee Democrat. Reach him at will@jaxtoday.org.
author image Reporter Will Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. He previously reported for the Jacksonville Business Journal. And before that, he spent more than a decade as a sports reporter at The St. Augustine Record, Victoria (Texas) Advocate and the Tallahassee Democrat. Reach him at will@jaxtoday.org.

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