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Free ‘store’ helps clothe underprivileged kids
Donations of new and gently used clothes help promote students’ self-esteem.
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PINELLAS COUNTY – Clothes to Kids has everything other children’s clothing stores have – except a cash register. Everything in the store is free.

But there’s a catch. Only students 4 to 18 who are enrolled in their school’s free lunch program are eligible. And they must have a referral on letterhead from a church, school or social service agency.

“We call it shopping even though they’re not paying for it,” store volunteer Judy Marley said. “The idea is to give them self-esteem in school because they have nice clothes to wear.”

The store is the brainchild of Marie McClung and Jode Eye.

“We met at Jode’s kitchen table many, many hours, putting it together,” McClung said. “We made lots of phone calls, seeing if anybody was doing something similar, and we found that there was a real need for it.”

When Jack Kennedy, a member of the Rotary Club of Clearwater East, heard what they were doing, he put up $5,000 of his own money and challenged the club members to match it, which they did. The $10,000 is being used to put on Operation Joy through Dec. 21 so needy families can get their children clothes for the holidays. The Rotarians are also exploring ways to form a permanent relationship with the store.

Everybody at the store is a volunteer, and jobs are rotated frequently so nobody gets bored. To leverage the cash donations, volunteers shop for good used clothing at Goodwill-type thrift shops. But most of the clothing is donated.

“We’re very fussy,” Marley said. “They have to be things we’d put our own kids in.”

Clothes that don’t meet the store’s strict standards are donated to charities that are less particular.

“Nothing goes to waste,” Marley said.

Each child gets five outfits twice a year. Shopping is by appointment only.

“We like the people to have the time to look and see what they really want,” Marley explained.

First, the child gets new underwear and socks, mostly donated by manufacturers. Then they get outer clothing appropriate to the season. This time of year, they also get a winter jacket.

The clothing is divided according to age and gender in different rooms.

Excess in-season clothing is stored in a donated, portable storage container out back. Out-of-season clothing is stored in off-site storage units, also donated. The store is soon hoping to move to larger quarters.

Donations may be made at the store, 1130 Pinehurst Road, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday. For further information, call 733-4397 or visit
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