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As a paraprofessional teacher's assistant at Gallup Hill School in Ledyard, Camie Lozier noticed a recess problem more persistent than unseasonably cold temperatures this past winter. Across grades and classrooms, Lozier saw students coming to school without winter-appropriate clothing.
"Kids were coming out without coats ... with boots falling off their feet," said Lozier. "We live in a really blessed culture. There's really no need for these kids to be going without when we live in such abundance."
Lozier, a mother of two, decided to take action. In February she partnered with Radiant Destiny International, a nonprofit organization that helps local communities provide for themselves through efforts that connect local schools, churches and businesses. Through this partnership, Lozier created the Ledyard Clothing Exchange, a nonprofit program that accepts clothing donated by Ledyard and Gales Ferry residents and provides them to local children in need.
After spreading the word to friends and family, contacts within the school systems and on the Ledyard and Gales Ferry Community Forum Facebook page, she began to collect clothing donations suitable for children ages kindergarten through 6th grade. An anonymous member of her church even contributed a donation shed and signage that since April has served as a community clothing drop off spot in the parking lot of Little Learners Children's Center at the corner of Pumpkin Hill and Gallup Hill Roads.
She received a great response. So great, in fact, that the project began to overwhelm the small basement room that served as headquarters for the sorting and distribution of clothes.
Plans for expanding Ledyard Clothing Exchange were halted after Lozier sent out over 200 letters to local businesses asking for monetary support and received only one donation of $10 in return. But last week, Gallup Hill Baptist Church agreed to donate two conjoining rooms, providing a permanent home for program.
While the permanent location has been determined, Lozier and the Ledyard Clothing Exchange are still seeking donations to outfit the room to operate as a clothing shop of sorts, although she assures both donors and recipients that clothing will always be free of charge. Any funds the program receives will go to purchasing organizational wall units, bins and other storage systems to accommodate donations of out-of-season clothes and clothing to fit children outside the kindergarten through 6th grade range.
Lozier believes a permanent location will also lend credibility to the fledgling program, providing businesses and residents with assurance that the exchange is trustworthy and in need of donations of clothing, time and money.
While the Ledyard school community has been eager to donate clothing to the cause, Shailene Withrow, a paraprofessional teacher's assistant Gallup Hill, said she believes the lack of monetary support may be the result of a lack of understanding of the need for a clothing donation program.
"There's a lot of enthusiasm in our school. I think the enthusiasm is (greater) when they're informed. If you see these kids day after day, you see that need and you want to meet that need," said Withrow. "Sometimes if people don't actually see it, they don't actually know."
For Denise Dittrich, a mother and paraprofessional who works with Lozier, the program has provided an opportunity for her family to both give back and receive help. Dittrich and her three children have been involved in many local community service efforts, so when she was able to accept clothing from the Ledyard Clothing Exchange for her 9-year-old and 13-year-old, she made sure her family understood that they were benefiting from a community effort.
"I try to help them understand that you don't need to be embarrassed to get help," said Dittrich. "I do try to let my kids know when we get help because we do give help to a lot of other people. It's not a one way road."
Dittrich said the clothes she received were clean, smelled fresh and some still had tags, which fits with Lozier's insistence that the clothes she provides be of the quality of "a high-end consignment shop." She said most donations come freshly washed, free of stains and folded. She estimates that of the donated clothing she receives, only 15 percent of items are too worn to be used.
"Everything I'm keeping is something I would put on my own kids," she said.
That kind of care and concern is what makes the local donation program unique compared to some similar national donation programs said Lozier.
"If you put (something) in the drop boxes, you'll never see it again. But if you keep it in Ledyard, you can think 'Oh, that could have been my sweatshirt," she said.
Dittrich agrees. She said she would prefer to donate to a local effort because she knows that it would benefit her local community, especially members of the community who may not fit the traditional image of a family in need.
"I think it's important for people to know and feel comfortable that there's help there for them and that they don't have to go very far for it. Whereas other help can be very difficult to obtain, this is close to home," she said
And as spring time brings relief from the winter cold, the colorful spring clothes that fill Ledyard Clothing Exchange's donation shed are making their way into homes and onto playgrounds around town.
"You'll see smiles on lots of kids faces, even if you're not sure why. They might stand a little taller, a little prouder if they have a pair of shoes that's new to them," said Dittrich. "My daughter (is) one of the ones with a smile. It doesn't take a lot to make a child happy most of the time."