By BRENNA GRITEMAN
In the past 25 years, a Findlay couple and their army of volunteers have clothed nearly 4,000 children.
And as Clothe-A-Child founders Larry and Kathy Summers prepare for another busy holiday season, they’re pausing to say thanks. Thanks to the hundreds of volunteers who help the young shoppers navigate the department store clothing racks; thanks to the teachers and nonprofit agencies who help identify the most vulnerable children in the city; and thanks to the tireless fundraising efforts by area corporations, churches, social and service groups, schools and individuals. With their ongoing and overwhelming support, Clothe-A-Child is celebrating a milestone anniversary while reveling in a momentum that will carry it into the future.
Put simply, Clothe-A-Child provides new clothing for underprivileged children in Hancock County and the surrounding region. One hundred percent of all money donated to the cause goes directly to purchasing clothes for kids, as the nonprofit agency has no office, no paid staff and absolutely no overhead. All shopping is done at the Findlay Kohl’s, which provides extra staff, special pricing and separate checkout lanes during each event.
The agency was born out of a team-building exercise at Marathon Petroleum Corp. in 1992, from which Larry retired after 38 years. That first year, the group bought clothing for about 25 kids served by Open Arms and Hope House. Flash forward to 2011 when Clothe-A-Child partnered with Findlay City and other county schools and an additional six children were clothed.
That partnership with the schools has grown each year, reaching 395 students last year, from kindergarten to high school seniors, and shows “the need is just outstanding,” Kathy said.
A Findlay City Schools retiree, Kathy continues to reach out to teachers, principals and counselors who make recommendations on the students who could benefit most from the program.
“We do not have anything to do with or any say in who gets picked,” Larry said. “We rely solely on the people who know these kids best.”
Once the children are chosen, they’re paired with volunteers who take them shopping. Each child is given up to $250 to buy a selection of tops, pants, pajamas, socks, underwear, shoes and boots. Parents don’t accompany their children on the shopping spree, but they do give input on sizes, styles and what the child needs most.
Kathy noted she and the agency’s many volunteers find the shopping experience “humbling,” as many of these children have never been inside Kohl’s, having grown up shopping at thrift stores or wearing hand-me-downs. What’s more, teachers report the next day at school, the students “walk prouder, their heads are higher and they fit in.”
Eric Payne, principal at Northview Primary School, agreed that next school day is pretty special.
“They’re wearing the most precious items they own now. And when they come in the next day, they are just beaming,” Payne said.
He said 50 students in grades K-3 have already been identified and confirmed for this year’s shopping trip, scheduled for Dec. 6.
He’s been principal at Northview for five years, and has been involved with Clothe-A-Child his entire tenure. He said the program “affects everyone involved, even us as adults,” and ushers in a new meaning to the term “holiday spirit.”
“It’s been life-changing for me to be involved with this and to watch it grow,” Payne said of the program.
It’s no surprise, then, that schools are some of Clothe-A-Child’s greatest supporters, providing for about $20,000 of the agency’s approximate $85,000 annual budget through various fundraising efforts.
“They are some of the most passionate people that we have been around,” Larry said of the school staff.
Clothe-A-Child holds the majority of its shopping events in early December with its “legacy” event, clothing about 50 kids from Open Arms and Hope House, kicking off the season the first Saturday of December. The agency operates year-round, however, having taken 18 students back-to-school shopping and providing 99 pair of shoes ahead of the current school year.
Mary Kay Dunne, store manager at Kohl’s, said watching the children while they shop is a “true joy,” adding events such as Clothe-A-Child reflect the “real reason for the season.”
She said with December being such a busy retail month, it’s heartening for store associates to see the goodness they are providing and the positive impact they can have on the community.
She has been involved with the project for over 10 years and has watched it evolve with the changing needs of the community. As the project has grown in size and scope, she said Larry and Kathy have “embraced that change” and have devoted even more time and energy.
“These kids need our support, and they are so lucky to have this organization behind them,” Dunne said of Clothe-A-Child.
Larry noted that in a corporate town like Findlay, some people assume all families are well-to-do. Through this project, he’s learned that while not all families are able to provide new clothing to their children, there are many volunteers who can — and do — help fill the gaps.
“Because of our volunteers, hundreds of volunteers, we can make this happen and continue to grow,” Kathy said.
Contributions to the cause may be mailed to Clothe-A-Child of Ohio, Inc., P.O. Box 1202, Findlay, OH 45839. Potential volunteers should email the agency directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.