A community effort in Harrisonville has been keeping kids warm while the Midwest awaits a real spring.
The new Cat’s Basement in the Harrisonville School District is a place where students in search of clothing, shoes, coats or school supplies can have their needs fulfilled.
This academic year, the district has provided winter coats to 71 students and clothing for 195 children.
Located in the basement of the alternative school, the Cat’s Basement is set up like a store with shelves and racks fitted with clean clothing for students unable to afford even the most basic necessities.
“I’ve brought kids down here and they’ve picked out their own stuff, or if they didn’t have time, I would come down, grab a few things and take them back (to the school),” said Harrisonville Middle School Counselor Valerie Holmes.
The closet stocks clothing to fit students of all sizes — from the very young children to older teens in need of adult-sized clothing.
Jill Filer, the district’s communications and community relations director, said the idea for the Cat’s Basement was spurred the previous winter.
“A few years prior, the middle school had come up with an idea to have something like this — a clothing place at their building,” Filer said.
Filer felt inspired to make a similar resource available on a district level with the launch of the Bright Futures Harrisonville initiative in 2012.
If students had outgrown their clothing, didn’t have gym clothes, or couldn’t afford to buy new belongings, they could go up with a staffer to the storage room, which had been given the name of the “Cat’s Closet,” and pick out the item they needed.
“The concept was great, and when Bright Futures got going, we started to think of a central location where we could have it,” Filer said.
Filer identified a vacant space in the basement of the alternative school that would work.
Through the generosity of Harrisonville United Methodist Church, the Elks Lodge, the Rotary Club and several other local businesses and groups, the district remodeled the basement to include shelving, clothing racks, a shower and a washer and dryer.
“We’ve had a lot of volunteers in here getting this stuff ready,” Filer said. “We never asked for clothing, but people started hearing that we were going to have this, and clothing kept on getting dropped off.”
The Cat’s Basement was ready by summer in time for Bright Futures’ Back-To-School event.
“Families were able to come during the Back-to-School Fair and pick out three outfits and they all got a new pair of shoes,” Filer said. “It’s been a great community effort and we’re so excited about being able to have this for our kids.”
Throughout the school year, students have been able to use the basement as their needs changed — as kids outgrew their pants, or saw their shoes fall apart or become too small.
“Their toes are popping out and there are holes in the soles of their feet,” said Holmes, the middle school counselor. “It’s almost daily that I get a call from a teacher or another adult in our building to check on a kid.”
During the winter, there was also a demand for cold-weather apparel.
And with the basement below them, students at the alternative school are learning how to stock shelves and keep inventory.
“We wanted this to be a place where our alternative school students could also get some work skills,” Filer said. “(The basement) was a great place for this to be so that these kids could benefit, and then other kids could benefit, too.”
Harrisonville Middle School students taking home economics or life skills courses also have received hands-on experience in laundering the clothing donations.
“It’s been a great project so far in getting the community, kids and staff involved,” Filer said. “This is what Bright Futures is about ... . It’s a community partnership. There were so many people involved in getting it up and going.”
In addition to the basement, the middle school has continued to keep its Cat’s Closet open this year.
“We check ours first, and if we don’t have it, we come here,” Holmes said. “It’s fun to bring (students) over here and (see them) light up and pick out whatever they want. “
Holmes said students have been receptive to the initiative. She said five to seven students, on average, use the closet daily.
“They know about the closet and they’re never afraid to ask anyone,” Holmes said. “They know it’s there and that it’s accessible.”