School district employees and community members in both Bryan and College Station have worked to create resource in both school districts to meet families' basic needs of clothing, food, toiletries and school supplies.
Chrissy's Closet in College Station and Hope's Locker in Bryan both exist to help students. The only requirement for both programs is the student must be enrolled in a Bryan or College Station public school. They do not have to register or qualify for the free and reduce lunch or meet any other requirements than simply being an active student in the school district.
Both resources are officially open for a few hours per week - 4 to 6 p.m. Mondays for Chrissy's Closet and 4:15 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays for Hope's Locker.
Both closets have monthly and per-semester limits for those who shop in the closets with those limits based on the item. As an example, coats and shoes may have a per-semester limit, but shirts, pants and underclothes have per-month limits.
The idea for Chrissy's Closet, which is run by the CSISD Education Foundation, began in a school district meeting in 2015. Kelly Kovaks, who recently moved to San Antonio from College Station, showed Shannon Long, the district's technology coordinator, an article she had read about another district setting up a closet, Long said.
"That was on a Wednesday, and by Friday, we had gone to [Superintendent] Clark Ealy and asked him, kind of sketched out the and got his permission immediately," she said.
She and Kovaks knew there were students with needs and that campus administrators were doing their best to meet those needs. The pair wanted to find a way to bring those resources together in one place where it would be available when needed.
"That was kind of really our heart behind it. Knowing that kids are going to learn better when they have all their physical needs met, and we wanted to be able to provide as many of those as we could."
The planning began toward the end of 2015 and Chrissy's Closet opened in October 2016.
Originally, it had a generic clothing closet name, but then they wanted it to have a more personal touch with a more home-feel to it. As the organizers started thinking of people who had made a difference in people's lives, they thought of Director of Student Services Chrissy Hester, a 38-year veteran in the district.
"Everybody that knows Chrissy Hester knows the incredible work that she does helping everyone in our district - staff, students, parents - way above and beyond anything that anybody could probably even imagine," Long said, noting they wanted to make sure the naming came while Hester was still working with the district.
"It makes me cry," Hester said about the surprise dedication. "I spend a lot of time - a lot of time - with the families in this district that need those kinds of things, and I was always just sending out emails to campuses and begging for shoes or clothes or whatever," Hester said.
She would keep bags of clothes and shoes in her office closet and would let students and families look through what she had collected to see if they could use any of it. Now, when families come to her, she directs them to the closet and helps them find what they need.
"It's huge. It just makes such a difference with these kids," she said, giving credit to Long and Kovaks for developing and organizing the idea for Chrissy's Closet.
Long said she thinks the positive atmosphere in Chrissy's Closet is part of the reason it has seen about 300 more visitors this year compared to the same time last year.
"We really try to make it a really positive experience for them," she said, noting the experience is positive for those volunteering and working in the closet.
Chrissy's Closet also helps during students and families with backpacks and school supplies for the start of school and during the holidays with Halloween costumes in October and a Christmas event that includes pictures with Santa Claus, a toy drive and a shopping area for children to pick out a gift for their parents.
In the future, Long would like to see the closet expand to the point that it needs to move out of College View High School and into its own building.
"My hope and my prayer is that we're able to meet the needs of all of the kids in CSISD, so that they all go to school dressed with shoes and backpacks and the things that they need, ready to learn."
Bryan school district's homeless services department Project HOPE oversees the new Hope's Locker set up in the back of Bryan Collegiate High School. The area was established to help meet the needs of Bryan students and their families.
The space, which operates similarly to Chrissy's Closet, has racks of clothes, a food pantry, toiletries and school supplies.
"We've always been kind of a family support office for the district with a focus on families experiencing homelessness," Tara Dupper, homeless services coordinator for Bryan schools, said. "For folks living in poverty, you want to provide services for everyone."
Established this year, Hope's Locker opened to families in October and had an official ribbon cutting last month. The name came during that time as a result of staff members brainstorming ideas and getting positive feedback from students in the closet at the time.
Before moving onto the Bryan Collegiate High School campus and establishing Hope's Locker earlier this fall, all material donations to Project HOPE were kept in boxes and bins that people would have to dig through to find what they needed.
"It's almost like we've lost our memories of that. … We've just been able to serve or just to make sure that clothes go out to way more people and much more efficiently. At our old location, if we got five bags of clothes donated, we probably wouldn't see all those go out for a few months because we just weren't able to let as many people know because we didn't have the capacity. Now we have dozens of bags of clothes coming in and going out probably within a few weeks of each other. There's just way more flow-through."
The idea for the new space came from the Bryan-College Station Regional Association of Realtors, which for 20 years has raised money through an annual Fun Run for the school district to purchase shoes to distribute throughout the year as needed.
"That group is a collection of really great people who are just all really enthusiastic and organized. … They've been doing a lot already, but just for them to decide to take on this whole project, I feel really fortunate," Dupper said.
Dupper acknowledges there are big needs Hope's Locker cannot meet, such as rent. What they can do, she said is make sure the students and their families have clothes to wear, have food that night and have the supplies to do their homework.
"It's nice to be in an office where at least we can feel like we're trying to provide the basics kids need to come to school ready to learn," Dupper said.
In addition to helping meet students' needs, Dupper also helps make sure families classified as "homeless" understand the rights they have, including being able to enroll in school without having all required documentation and maintaining their enrollment status at their "school of origin" even if the family moves outside the district's boundaries.
Homelessness is defined differently by the public school system than by the government, Dupper said. Rather than just being someone who is living in a shelter or in a public space, homelessness for the purpose of students also includes those who are "doubled-up" with another family, living with friends or relatives.
"I think there are a lot of families who are living in what the Department of Education considers homeless that don't know about the rights that they have," she said. "If folks think they may qualify for more rights or services, they should reach out just to see."
Under the Department of Education's definition, the Bryan school district had about 850 homeless students last year. College Station has about 101 this year, according to the Chrissy's Closet website.
Dupper relies on community organizations to provide needs that the closet cannot meet and also to support the closet through donations.
Throughout her career as a social worker, Dupper said, the collaboration among community organizations and support from community members creates a "safety net" for families who benefit from the closet.
The closet has also helped clothe people before job interviews or school organizations, and in the future would like to expand to have sports equipment and other items and events.
How to help
Chrissy's Closet and Hope's Locker are on Facebook.
The best way to find volunteer opportunities at Chrissy's Closet is by following the program on Facebook. Monetary donations can be made on the CSISD Education Foundation page by selecting Chrissy's Closet as the recipient. Clothing donations can only be accepted during scheduled clothing drives due to storage limitations with the next clothing drive scheduled for Feb. 23 from 8-11 a.m.
To volunteer or to make monetary or material donations to Hope's Locker, Dupper suggests contacting the Project Hope directly at email@example.com or 979-209-7042.