There is so much more than appearance behind a good outfit.

Just ask the people overseeing the North Viking Career Closet at North High School, where professional clothing is collected for students to use on interviews, experiential learning events and more.

“You would not think clothing is that big of a deal, but it’s almost the bottom root to a lot of social-emotional needs,” said Dianne Falasco, an intervention specialist at North who oversees the closet.

The North Viking Career Closet began two years ago in response to the oncoming College and Career Academy (CCA) model rolling out in Akron Public Schools. With North as a pilot school this year, CCAs will roll out in all district high schools next year, giving students 57 pathways to focus their education on to prepare for life after graduation.

The closet was meant to provide students with nice clothes to wear to professional and school social events. Since it started, though, it has done much more.

A realized idea

Falasco runs the closet along with students in the Step 22 program she teaches, which helps adults with multiple disabilities transition from high school to a job or independent living.

She also oversees the Viking Closet, which is a space filled with more casual donated clothing. While the school began collecting casual clothing for students years ago, Falasco has taken the initiative to begin organizing it all by article, size and formality.

Since Falasco has taken over, response to the clothing has boomed.

Donations have come pouring in, and students searching for an outfit have come pouring in nearly just as quickly. The clothes now take up two small closet areas in the school, along with half of Falasco’s large classroom.

Falasco holds coat and dress giveaways throughout the year. She also puts racks out in the hallways during parent conferences, and sometimes, teachers even use the racks of clothes to teach students the difference between professional and nonprofessional clothing.

Students are free to take as many clothes as they need at absolutely no cost.

Retail therapy

“[The closet] touches all the kids that need it … and there is such a need,” Falasco said.

Along with Akron being a high-poverty district, North High School has an unusual circumstance — nearly half of its students are immigrants, many of whom are refugees.

Many students come to Akron from tropical South Asian climates, unequipped with the appropriate clothing to handle bitter Northeast Ohio winters.

Other students are in situations where they don’t have washers or dryers, or even places to keep themselves clean.

For some, it’s a combination of all the above.

Because of the circumstances, browsing the closet is often a confidential.

Sometimes, students check out the closets when there’s an upcoming school dance or interview. Last year, Falasco said a student applied for 40 scholarships — some of which required interviews — and she left the closet with an entire bag full of clothes.

Other times, it starts with a teacher contacting a counselor about a student with poor hygiene or inappropriate clothing. The counselor then discreetly takes the student to pick out new clothes to wear.

“I’m grateful for it. They do a good job,” said Christa Nuru, a ninth-grade counselor, as she helped a student search for a new shirt to wear on a recent Tuesday.

From there, those students may be connected with personnel from the Closing the Achievement Gap (CTAG) program, who then contact parents to uncover bigger needs in the household.

“That’s how we build that bigger network we have here,” said Okema Winters, one of the CTAG personnel at North.

Winters added that the organized closets have helped address not just individual issues, but also schoolwide issues, like attendance.

Many kids walk to school, sometimes arriving cold or soaked from the rain. While they may be inclined to leave rather than sit in wet clothes all day, Winters said sometimes keeping them is as simple as “getting the kids to change and just stay here.”

Building life skills

Economically disadvantaged students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the Viking closets.

Falasco also involves her several Step 22 students in washing, folding, ironing and sorting the clothes. The practice gives them skills to work in retail or hospitality, Falasco said.

For some, it has exposed them to a job they plan to pursue once they finish school.

“I love it,” said 19-year-old Chris Chappell, who has Down syndrome, as he heaved bins filled with clothes in one of the tiny, hot closets and led the way in sorting through their contents.

“I think it just adds to the whole sense of community at North,” Falasco said. “There’s commonality in the closet.”

 

Theresa Cottom-Bennett can be reached at 330-996-3216 or tcottom@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.