ARLINGTON — Years later, telling this story still brings tears to Kimberly Meno’s eyes.
A boy, maybe 10- or 11-years-old, entered a nondescript room at the old Arlington High School.
He beamed when he saw a pair of green and yellow cleats on the shelf.
“I’ve never owned a pair of Nike shoes before, and I’m leaving here with two,” he said, dancing through the aisles.
That was thanks to the Arlington Kids’ Kloset, which has offered clothes free of charge to local students for the past 17 years. Meno, a high school health teacher, was the cofounder.
“That kind of impact, that’s what keeps me coming back,” she said.
Patterned after a similar initiative in Edmonds, it started with a modest $5,000 donation.
“And the rest is history,” site manager LaCrissa Spencer said.
Now it has a $100,000 budget to get kids new socks, shoes, underwear and hygiene supplies. All other clothes, about 90% in total, are donated. A third-grade sock drive at Pioneer Elementary School brought in 1,300 pairs, for example.
Serving the Arlington, Lakewood, Darrington and Granite Falls school districts, the nonprofit says it has clothed upwards of 15,000 local kids since 2005. Last year, it provided clothes to over 800 low-income children, said site manager LaCrissa Spencer.
Students who get free or reduced-price lunch qualify to check out the Kloset at 135 South French Ave. where the motto is “enhanced learning through nurtured self-esteem.”
Of the more than 5,500 students in the Arlington School District last school year, almost 40% were identified as low-income, according to state data. Nearly half of Lakewood students were low-income. In Darrington, that number eclipsed 57%. And in Granite Falls, it was over 45%.
When kids enter, they’ll get a checklist of what they can get for free. Five pairs of new socks. One coat (the Knights of Columbus recently donated a few dozen). Five tops. Three bottoms. One book.
The most coveted might be the two “extras.” That could be another pair of shoes, like the boy who got his first two pair of Nikes years ago. Or it could be a backpack or purse.
The rows and rows of racks in renovated classrooms are open from just before the start of school through February, before it switches to more summery clothes from mid-March through the end of the school year. Families who qualify can come once a season.
Volunteers see kids walk in with holes in their shoes, throw them out and walk out wearing the new kicks they just picked out.
The average family, with three or four kids, saves between $700 and $1,000 by patronizing the Kloset, Meno estimated.
“When you donate locally, it’s easy to see where it goes,” she said.
This isn’t all the organization does, however. It also helps families in emergency situations, like floods or fires.
The Kloset works with school counselors and advocates to connect with kids. It also supplies extra clothes directly to schools in case of an on-campus emergency.
And a hidden closet in the back supplies clothes students can borrow for choir or music concerts, as well as school dances.
Meno’s four kids have grown up with the Kloset. From the age of 3, they were counting socks and bundling them up.
“We’re teaching our kids a lifelong lesson to be involved and help others,” Meno said.
Spencer grew up with a single mom. Other kids teased her for wearing hand-me-downs, so she wishes she had this growing up. Now with her own teenage daughter, she sees the value of the Kloset.
“I see the struggle,” Spencer said. “I’ve been the struggle.”
You can learn more about the Kloset, with information about volunteering and donations, at kids-kloset.org.