Over 50 bags and boxes of food, school supplies and personal care items were donated to Hope Closet at Granite Hills High School on Sept. 23, leaving a room fully stocked with items that students in need can discreetly source through a school counselor.
Hope Closet, housed in a small portable school room, is tucked at the far end of campus where students can carefully shop the shelves for items they need. High schoolers can ask for a pass to the room, and an escort will take them in with little fanfare, preserving their pride while ensuring they have enough to eat at home, as well as basic student supplies to navigate high school on a daily basis.
The outreach project was created by TB11 founder Mona Barnes and TB11 spokesperson Shellie Donofrio, along with other members of the TB11 Foundation, a non-profit organization named for student Trevor Barnes, #11 on his baseball team, who took his own life in January 2018.
Although the TB11 team has pursued a few avenues dedicated to addressing teen depression and suicide, Hope Closet is a project specifically designed to provide resources to students in need.
“Trevor had so many lifelong friends, growing up in Alpine and his parents wanted to make sure that they provided whatever support they could for other teenagers who are struggling. Trevor was fortunate but there are other teenagers out there who are less fortunate, some from families who might just be going through a rough patch but don’t have any resources, don’t have an outlet,” Donofrio said.
The closet, she said, is supposed to target those who need it without making them feel shame or discomfort in asking for help.
“We know we take a risk by not making the room more known but at the same time, anonymity is really important. We really want kids to feel safe asking for help,” Donofrio said.
Students who are uncomfortable with going to the office and asking for help can email their counselor through their school address, Donofrio said, and counselors will make the connection from there.
There are homeless students who pass through, students who rely on school lunches for a full day’s nutrition, students who are escorted by Student Resource Officers and assumed to be in trouble because it might be more socially acceptable, Donofrio said, than admitting your family is living in a car and struggling.
“It’s real easy to put on that face as a high schooler, act like everything is okay. The one benefit that we feel like we have is that when a child gets to come here and sees what we have, they are the best advertising because they know the others who struggle. Kids watch: they know who waits at the bus stop. They know the others that walk across the street and hang out in Kennedy Park until Mom and Dad get off work.
They know the ones that live in their cars and their vans,” Donofrio said.
Barnes, Donofrio said, is meticulous about organizing Hope Closet, making sure that nothing indicates charity or resembles a hand-me-down.
Food is checked for expiration dates and only given out if it appears to be newly purchased rather than uneaten staples plucked from pantries; personal care items and feminine products are stocked with teens in mind; a stack of new jeans sits neatly folded on a shelf like it would in any store and small bottles of laundry detergent are available along with school supplies, snacks and toothpaste.
“Every time Mona thinks of a child walking in those doors, she thinks ‘what would Trevor have liked? What would Trevor have wanted? Oh, that’s Trevor’s favorite snack…’ and so that helps her to connect with him each time. She knows she’s helping a child and it’s all done anonymously,” Donofrio said.
Often, she said, people will ask about donating items and question whether they should stick with basic food items and she always tells them it is quite the opposite: kids who are struggling are still kids and want hairspray and gel so their hair is cute for school, they want school supplies with personality, shampoo and conditioner “so they feel comfortable going to school” in brands that teens would use.
Another item she gets asked about: religious pamphlets from different organizations.
“I’m not going to have a child feel judged coming in here to get a box of macaroni and cheese. As much as I understand the passion behind supporting people in their difficulties, we have one focus and that is kids being able to eat, feel clean, go to school, feel comfortable. That’s it,” Donofrio said.
In the future, she said, the TB11 team would love to see Hope Closet expanded from supplies to a full outreach center with a tutoring program. For now, the room is stocked and “has backstock” following the drive.