School nurse Katie Pickering stands by Mann Elementary's Clothing Closet. (Photo: Care to Learn)

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Clothing and hygiene issues — whether it’s soiled or ill-fitting clothes, or a lack of soap and deodorant — can easily prevent a kid from learning and being comfortable in school. 

That’s why Care to Learn has put in stocked clothing closets at nearly all Springfield Public School buildings.

The Springfield-based nonprofit added 10 clothing closets this year, bringing the total to 43 out of SPS’s 52 school buildings. 

Prior to having the clothing closets, it fell on school nurses to collect and store what clothing items they could find to be given out in an emergency.

Now they can get a brand new shirt, pants, underwear or whatever their kids need from the clothing closet. The clothes are all somewhat plain and basic — no flashy colors or designs, so they match whatever the kid is already wearing. 

Nonprofit meeting kids’ needs since 2008

Care to Learn was founded in 2008 by Springfield businessman Doug Pitt. The nonprofit’s mission is to provide immediate funding to meet emergency needs in the areas of health, hunger and hygiene so every student can be successful in school. 

Care to Learn has always done that by providing vouchers for things like clothes, glasses, hearing aids and hygiene items. If a teacher or bus driver notices a student has a need, they send the information to the school’s liaison who immediately contacts Care to Learn. 

This is Melissa Rea, Care to Learn’s director of chapter services. (Photo: Care to Learn)

The voucher could be for food, clothes, medicine, hygiene items — just whatever the kid needs to get back into the classroom and feel comfortable. 

But over the years, school nurses and staff kept running into the same issue: 

“When kids need clothes to keep them in class, they need them right then,” explained Melissa Rea, director of chapter services. “They can’t depend on parents to bring clothes all the time if kids have an accident or for whatever reason their clothing is inappropriate or something gets spilled on them.”

The Clothing Closet Project started in 2017 as a pilot program serving the 15 highest-poverty schools in the SPS district.

Over the past two years, Care to Learn has been able to add a total of 20 clothing closets, thanks to COVID-19 relief funds from SPS.  

For nurses, program is ‘game changer’

“For the nurses, it’s really been a game changer,” Rea said. “As impactful as this program has been for the students that receive these clothing and hygiene items, it’s been just as impactful for the nurses and school staff because it’s made it so much easier to help them.

These are common items found in Care to Learn’s clothing closets. They are all someone plain clothes intended to match whatever else the kid is wearing. (Photo: Care to Learn)

“I had one nurse tell me that having things like deodorant on hand can make a conversation with a kid about body odor a lot less stressful for them both because they can actually give them a solution,” Rea said. “They can say, ‘Here’s some deodorant. Here’s some body wash and here’s a new shirt.”

The clothing closets are restocked every month. And if a closet runs out of a particular item, all it takes is a phone call and Care to Learn will send it right over. 

Care to Learn has partnerships with companies like Haynes, Fruit of the Loom and Walmart, as well as local companies like Elite Promotions to get the best prices on plain shirts, sweatpants, leggings, socks and underwear.

Clothing, shoes are all brand new

“Something we’re constantly doing is trying to evaluate our vendors and make sure that we’re being good stewards of donor dollars that support this program,” Rea said. “The clothing is brand new. We believe at Care to Learn that giving something brand new gives them a little extra dignity.” 

By the end of this year’s expansion, Care to Learn’s Clothing Closet Project will cover virtually all of SPS’s buildings. There’s a handful of schools that declined to be part of the project because they’ve got similar programs, thanks to their PTA groups.

“It’s something that is literally used multiple times a day all across the school district,” Rea said. “It’s just an incredibly practical, awesome resource for our schools to have and I’m so glad that Care to Learn can be a part of filling these needs for kids.”

Learn more about Care to Learn at

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers public safety, the courts, homelessness, domestic violence and other social issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald