FREDERICKSBURG — James Monroe High School gym teacher Tammy Clark noticed that one of her students was wearing a jacket to school every day last fall, even though the weather was still warm.
The girl was prickly and hard to get to know, but one day she stopped in Clark’s office and asked a question that gave insight into her attitude.
“Ms. Clark, do you have a T-shirt I could have? I don’t have anything at all,” Clark said the student told her. “She plucked my heartstrings. I knew then that something had to be done for her.”
Clark, who teaches ninth-grade health and physical education, began asking for donations of clothing that she could keep in her office and give away, not only to that student but to others who might need something to wear.
“It took off like wildfire,” she said.
People started not only dropping off clothes, shoes and toiletries but also offering to help sort and display them as well. The Giving Tree, as the effort was dubbed, was off and running.
James Monroe principal Taneshia Rachal credits it with helping reduce chronic absenteeism at the high school from 9.34% in the 2017-18 school year to 5.49% last school year, when seven students took advantage of The Giving Tree.
This school year, about 30 students have been coming in each week to get clothing and toiletries from The Giving Tree, and Rachal said she hopes to see a similar decline in chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing at least 15 school days during the school year.
Missing that much time in the classroom can cause some students to fall so far behind they drop out before graduation, according to a report by Attendance Works, a state and national initiative the promotes policies to improve school attendance. It found one of the reasons students fail to show up for class is a lack of clothing, especially clean clothing.
Clark, however, said she doesn’t have to look at the data to know that the clothing has improved students’ morale. She can tell by what they say, like the student who shared that she “finally got to be pretty like the other girls.”
“Peer pressure is so tough at this age,” Clark said. “That [comment] did it for me. We’ve got to make it work.”
This year, the program has moved out of her office and into a 14-by-18-foot shed behind the gym. It’s filled with donations of new and gently used clothing that volunteers — including some of Clark’s students, as well as several adults — help to sort and display on hangers and racks donated by Charlotte Russe, Gymboree and Virginia Hill stores when they closed.
The Giving Tree is open between 7 and 7:45 a.m. Wednesdays, when students can pick out up to five clothing items and as many toiletries as they need for free each month. Many are collected and donated by several local Realtors, while others are dropped off in a bin in the high school’s front office. Anything with the school’s name or colors is especially popular, and there is a need for clothing for male students.
Students Danielle Cloud, Olivia Adams and Hannah Christy, who help sort through the contributions, say they never know what they’ll find.
Many items are brand-new and still have their price tags, although they do get some oddball items like ugly Christmas sweaters, they said. Anything that can’t be used is given to Goodwill or thrown away.
Romaly Deza, a sophomore, said she started going to The Giving Tree last year because she was curious about what it offered.
“I found [brand-name] clothes,” she said while shopping there recently. “It helps a lot of people who can’t get clothes much. Everyone who comes here, nobody judges.”
That day, she found a pair of sheepskin-lined Bearpaw winter boots that she plans to wear to football games. She said she’s gotten an Adidas sweater and an old JM marching band sweater there in the past.
Other students who’ve taken advantage of the program include some whose teacher told Clark they came to school shivering on a recent cold day. Clark said she sent over 10 coats. She also invited a student and her family to get what they needed from The Giving Tree after they lost everything in a house fire.
“James Monroe is like a family,” she said. “We all pitch in if we see someone in need. If there’s a family member in need, we’re going to step up to help them.”
Clark said she was especially touched when one student asked Clark if he could pick out a few things for his grandmother because she’s raising him and didn’t have many clothes, and another gave donated clothing that had been given to her family but didn’t fit.
“We know that there are so many more here that need it that won’t come out,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out a way to get the word out and help them get help.”
Plans are in the works to have students model some of the clothes in a fashion show. It will be staged by the fashion marketing class, and the TV production class will do the videography. Eventually, Clark would like to get a washer and dryer installed at JM so students who might not otherwise have access to those appliances can clean their clothes.
“I didn’t know it would grow into this,” Rachal said, “but I couldn’t be more pleased.”