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Fort Worth Homeless Youth Find What They Need In The Care Closet

Among the challenges that many school districts face is the number of economically disadvantaged students and, in some cases, kids without a steady home.

One class in the Fort Worth Independent School District decided to tackle this problem, and they did it with style.

It started as a service project for students in AVID at North Side High School in the Fort Worth Independent School District. The college-readiness program helps students who come from low-income or disadvantaged families.

A police officer told their teacher about the growing number of students with no place to live. The officer estimated as many as 1,600 students could be considered homeless – young adults without a regular place to sleep, clothes, school supplies or even the basics, like toiletry items.

The student’s solution: open a clothing center, dress it up like a boutique and fill it with everything a teenager could possibly need.

"At first, I was going in thinking, it's just going to be another thing to put on my resume," said Bianca Espinoza, a student in AVID. "Well, as soon as I finished it and the opening came, it really humbled me."

Espinoza and other students, like Andres DiazdeLeon, know what it's like to struggle financially. DiazdeLeon recalls what his family went through.

“Growing up, we lived in poverty. We barely had food to scrape by," he said. "We didn’t really have a home and we still don’t have a steady home life.”

Arlington Heights, another school in the district, is housing the clothing center they dubbed Care Closet.

To get it ready, volunteers added shelves and hooks to hang clothes and display jewelry. They added shoe racks and hung a number of scarves, dresses and tops along the green-colored walls. They even added a fitting room with a turquoise-colored curtain.

With prom just around the corner, the closet fills a much-needed void for students who want to attend the annual big event, but can’t afford the fancy dresses or tuxes.

“Oh, the prom goodies. Yea," said Espinoza, the excitement detectable in her voice. "They brought in this huge stand for prom dresses and they opened up the bag. When they opened it, I saw how many dresses there were, the jewelry, the shoes..."

As part of their midterm exam, students collected donated items for the closet, which opened in March. The collection included 120 prom dresses and more than 240 pair of jeans.

Rhonda O’Brien, the teacher who oversaw the project, credits Julie Cox, the Fort Worth Homeless Liaison Officer, who alerted her to the student homeless population in the district.

“We’re over here in our little bubble...," said O'Brien. "We don’t understand homelessness like she does. So the need is tremendous. We wanted them to have a safe place to go where they can get what they need in order to survive.”

But Care Closet isn’t only for kids who don’t have a roof over their head. It’s open to the many other students who don’t have the financial means. Nearly 80 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals.

DiazdeLeon says he’s been moved by the response from the community.

“It just touches my heart that there are people out there who care," he said. "I was there once -- not completely -- but I know what it feels like to want but not to have.”

School officials say there are plans to open another Care Closet at North Side High School in the fall, and possibly more in the future.

To learn more about The Care Closet, you can visit its Facebook page.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.