The Closet at DDE

Security officer Shirley Jones and science teacher Vanessa Connor arrange recently donated clothes in "The Closet" at Eisenhower High School in Blue Island. The Closet is a room at the school that supplies gently used clothing, coats, shoes and underwear to students in need. (John Smierciak / Daily Southtown)

Shirley Jones knows what it's like to be poor, homeless even.

She knows what it's like to be forced to choose between paying the electric bill or putting food on the table. And she knows what it's like to be a teenager desperate to fly under the radar.  Jones knows the struggle of poverty. She braved it as a child and as a single parent.

And for some reason, kids in similar situations seem to sense that she is one of them, that she's been there, survived that, which is why they often open up to her about their own financial straits.  So, when a student at Eisenhower High School didn't have a plain white shirt to wear under her basketball jersey, she came to Jones.

The school security guard literally gave her the shirt off her back. When biology teacher Vanessa Connor learned of Jones's generosity, the women began to chat.

"We both were noticing the same thing — kids without coats, kids wearing the same clothes day after day. We were getting a lot of the same students confiding in us," Connor said.

The stories told of hunger and clothing shortages. One girl said her family could afford to go to the laundromat, but they couldn't afford the soap. Some kids would breeze by Jones's desk in the morning to see if she had anything "extra" to eat, happy to walk away with an apple or a hard-boiled egg, she said. Although many kids had after-school jobs, Connor said, they often pitched in to help pay for rent or food at home.

Last spring, the teacher and the security guard made a vow to help these kids who had so little. Their promise was realized two weeks ago when they unveiled The Closet. Located in a dedicated space on the second floor of the Blue Island school, The Closet is a room where kids in need can go to get a sweater, a coat, a pair of shoes or even new underwear. It has been open for two weeks and already 15 kids have stopped by, Connor said.

Teachers, colleagues and friends have donated clothing and cash to get the project off the ground. The District 218 Foundation supplied $1,000 seed money, which enabled Jones and Connor to also buy socks, underwear and a washer and dryer at deep discounts thanks to Sears Outlet. Retired art teacher Pat Huss has donated a portion of the proceeds from the sale of a Chicago Cubs victory drawing to the cause. And, in the spring, Lions Club International plans a fundraiser to benefit the program.

Connor said she and Jones hope to make it a 501(c)3 nonprofit one day, so that they can approach retailers for donations. Meanwhile, they are seeking monetary donations because of the 15 students they've helped clothe, they had to shop for 12 of them, she said.

Jones said, "These kids know what it's like to struggle." Now she also wants them to know the warmth of kindness. She wants them to know that people care and, if you let them, they will help. "I want them to know that this school, this district, we are their family, too," she said.

Jones, a former Crestwood police officer was working security at Shepard High School when her son fell ill a few years ago. Her colleagues in District 218 formed a circle of love and strength around her, she said. "That show of support has stayed with me," she said. "They didn't know it, but at the time my son had Stage 4 cancer, I was homeless, living in a motel," she said.

Today, Jones' son is in remission and she has transferred from Shepard to Eisenhower, a school in which 80 percent of the student population lives at or near the poverty level.

Walking the halls of the Blue Island school, Jones sees images of her younger self. Jones said, as a child: "We were beyond poor. My mom raised us by herself. In sixth, seventh and eighth grade I just wanted to be invisible. I didn't want people to notice me. I just wanted to get home where I knew it was safe.

"We want these kids to feel safe right here," she said. When school started in the fall, Jones and Connor approached new principal Erik Briseno about opening a space where kids in need could go to get new or gently used shirts, shoes and pants.

Though boosting self-esteem, fostering comfort and providing warmth are motivators in themselves, Connor said the ultimate goal is education. "Learning is very connected to emotion," Connor said. "When you're sitting in your first period class thinking about how cold it was to get to school or that you're wearing the same shirt you wore yesterday, that's all you can think about. Then you go to your next class and you sit next to new students and that train of thought starts all over again. It happens all day long. "If we can prevent this from becoming all consuming, then they can learn," Connor said. "And that's the goal."

Connor said counselors conducted an anonymous survey earlier in the school year. Among the questions they asked was, "Have you ever missed school due to not having the necessary amount of clothing or clean clothing?" "At least 75 percent of the students checked yes," she said.

To visit the closet, kids in need simply fill out a request that identifies them only by student ID number, Connor said. Then a counselor pulls them aside and a time is set up for them to "shop." Often students have special requests. One boy asked for snacks. They obliged, buying him boxes of granola bars. Connor said she sees The Closet at Eisenhower as a pilot program to be copied in other schools.

"We don't want to embarrass kids or pity them. We want them to know that this comes from a place of love," she said. "These kids are my kids."

Connor and Jones also launder clothes for students who might not be able to do it at home. Jones said: "Many families are forced to make hard choices daily. Ultimately, parents are deciding, 'Do I make a car payment or pay rent? Do I pay rent or pay the light bill?' If you're behind on the electric bill, you may not be able to run the washer. It's really robbing Peter to pay Paul." So, she added, "if we can provide something like this, it takes off some of the pressure."

Connor said she is humbled by the fact that so many of the kids who have so little still have concern for others who have even less. One girl asked if she could get some cans of food because when there wasn't enough at home, her mother went without eating, Connor said. "I gave one girl a pair of gloves and she asked if she could give them to her mom because she didn't have gloves either," she said. "This is very real," Jones said. Having overcome hardship to the point that she can now give back, Jones added, "Being able to do this just makes my heart sing.

Please send your contributions to DDE Class 1968 "The Closet"

The DDE Class of 1968 is raising money for "The Closet"  The class would like to do this fund raising to show it's appreciation to the school system and the community that we grew up in .  We recognize and acknowledge the quality of our education.   We also are very thankful for the guidance of our parents and for the over all opportunities provided to us by our community.

P.S.  I thank you, and, more importantly, DDE students thank