PILES AND PILES — Before it was closed, Season Briggs’ Care Closet classroom provided clothes, books, toiletries and more to local students in need.

For a brief time earlier this month, a large grouping of items set up in a classroom at Washington School helped provide clothes, toiletries, books and other odds and ends to Cloverdale kids and families in need. While students or their family members can no longer head to Washington to pick up shoes or clothes that fit, or toiletries, Washington principal Mark Lucchetti said that they can facilitate item drop-offs to families on a needs basis.

The grouping of items, dubbed the “Care Closet,” began as a bookshelf stash of spare clothes for students last fall. It was located in Washington teacher Season Briggs’ classroom, and evolved into a larger set-up to accommodate needs while kids are learning from a distance. The closet was closed last week following multiple re-imaginings of how it would work, as well as a Cloverdale school board member’s concerns about the district’s lack of established protocol when it comes to handing out and accepting items during a pandemic.

In an interview before the closet was closed, Briggs said that the idea to start the closet began last fall when trying to brainstorm ways to help kids who may need a change of clothes during school hours.

“It started out where if kids got muddy, any need arose, they would come to my classroom to get clothes and it just kind of worked out that way,” she said. “When people are in need, it’s kind of demeaning to have to dig through boxes to find what you need.”

“The plan was, for kids in general who fall in the mud or rip their clothes, is to have clothes available here. To have things available for kids so they don’t have to interrupt their parents at work, it’s just to try to make everybody’s lives easier,” said Briggs of the closet’s origin.  

By having the clothes in a more discrete part of her classroom, kids wouldn’t have to call their parents to come drop off clothes and unnecessary attention wouldn’t be called to them. The bulk of the clothes came from leftovers from a consignment sale held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds every year — in February, Briggs, Toni Sack and Washington counselor Colleen Lurie went through available clothes and found “timeless styles” to help stock the classroom, Briggs said.

After distance learning began, Briggs and Lurie saw the Care Closet as an opportunity to help families and kids who may be in need. Briggs said that Lurie sent out a survey asking Washington families if there was anything they needed, and if their basic needs were being met.

“Immediately we had four kids respond, and that tells me right there that there’s a need for this,” Briggs said.

While it was still open, Lurie arranged times for parents to come by and go through the items in Briggs’ classroom. In the first few days of the closet being open, it was able to provide items to 20 local families. According to Lucchetti, they were hearing from students who needed toothbrushes, toothpaste, he noted that one boy student had been wearing his sister’s clothes since that’s all that fit.

Once word got around about the closet, Briggs had donations coming in from local families who had clothes that no longer fit, and other people who wanted to bring in donations of books, toothbrushes, gift cards and other items.

“Everything is closed, but kids are still growing,” Briggs said. “It’s more like everyone’s trading and I’m like the home base for it.”

At the start of the closet’s expanded drop-off and pick-up practices, students or parents were coming by Briggs’ classroom by appointment. However, a few days in, Lucchetti said that concerns were raised about people being able to look through items in the classroom and the school instead decided to prepare pre-made bags of items that people said they needed. A few days later, the Care Closet ceased operation altogether.

During a school board meeting on May 13, the closure of the closet was brought up. Board trustee Preston Addison said that as a whole, he felt uncomfortable with the school taking in and handing out items from the public during the pandemic (the board had a different consent calendar item related to a donation of new socks) without properly assessing best practices.

“It was done by appointment only, you had to have a mask, there was hand sanitizer, coming and going the clothes were all washed — I felt it was a very safe protocol and frankly do not see anything different from that and handing out Chromebooks, which I handed out personally,” Lucchetti said.

Addison said that it wasn’t the giving out of items that came to his attention, but a Facebook post that he said consisted of people being invited to the Care Closet without scheduling protocol being mentioned.

“Although I understand the safety concerns, basing information off of social media as to what’s happening in reality is a dangerous game. Students reached out to teachers because their basic needs were not being met,” said Teachers Association of Cloverdale President Erika Sauder during the meeting. “We cannot expect our children to do anything educational if they are not clean, if they are working, if they have trauma, mental health issues, abuse issues going on. School is usually a safe place for our kiddos, we ensure that, and we have no control over that right now and it breaks our hearts. So when we are doing something that was being handled safely and meeting kids who are coming without correct shoes on and in siblings clothes and unclean … it’s disheartening to us as a union to be so hung up on policy when our kids are not well. We need to remind ourselves that we are a Title 1 school and our children are more than a select few — we have a large population of kids who need help getting their needs met.”

Cloverdale Unified School District Board of Trustee president Jacque Garrison said that she was one of the contributors to the closet and added that she’s in favor of the closet.

The opposition to the closet confused Lucchetti, who said that the meeting portrayed the Care Closet as a “free-for-all,” adding that he’s at the school office handing out textbooks or Chromebooks to students and doesn’t see much of a difference between giving out those items and giving out clothes.

For the time being, he said that those who need items can reach out to him or Lurie.

“If they still reached out to us at the school or our counselor, I could find ways of doing it,” Lucchetti said. “We will figure something out on a need-basis. It just won’t be an open shop where a family could come in and go through stuff.”

“Until you fill those bottom rungs, it’s really hard for kids to learn,” he said.

When schools are back in-person, Lucchetti said that the Care Closet will reopen as well.

In an interview with the Reveille earlier this week, Cloverdale superintendent Jeremy Decker said that he felt the conversation at the board meeting went in an unexpected, unintended direction.

“It was really supposed to be about making sure the protocols were all in place,” Decker said, adding that he can see the Care Closet making a return before next school year after reassessing a safer way to facilitate handing items out. 

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