Starting the School Year With Confidence: Cradles to Crayons Addresses Clothing Insecurity

It’s understood that children can’t learn if they’re hungry. But some won’t even get to school because they don’t have clean, appropriate clothing. As children head back to school this week, I’m thinking about the ones who won’t be there because of clothing insecurity.

Almost a quarter million children in Chicagoland are experiencing poverty, and for many of them, hunger isn’t their only barrier to learning. Clothing insecurity may mean the child doesn’t own a pair of snow boots, or a winter coat. Two sisters we worked with took turns going to school in the winter because they shared one coat.

But clothing insecurity impacts lives in less dramatic and obvious ways. A child may have clothes, but no washing machine, so an outfit that gets dirty, stays dirty. Generously donated hand-me-downs may be too small or too big, or for a younger or older child, signs to the child’s peers that the clothes came through an act of charity.

If you think these kids can’t afford to be choosy, just picture yourself showing up for work on day one with a stain on your shirt, or a suit that doesn’t fit. Then imagine your co-workers are pre-teens.

In our community, families need to spend thousands of dollars each year on basic clothing and supplies for each child, which can be as much as 10-15 percent of income for a family of four earning $50,000 a year. So families must make choices. And while there is government support for housing, food and health care, there is no such help for clothing.

So it falls to all of us.

The Cradles to Crayons mission is to address clothing insecurity and provide children from birth to age 12 the essentials they need to thrive — at home, at school, and at play — in a way that helps them to go out into the world with confidence and self-respect.

One more thing on my mind as school begins: the kids who are going to school thanks to the energy and generosity of Cradles to Crayons volunteers. A few weeks ago, hundreds of volunteers gathered at Daley Plaza and assembled 50,000 backpacks in an exhilarating three hours at our annual back-to-school event. Backpacks were filled with school supplies and motivating “well wish” notes expressing support and confidence in the recipient’s ability to succeed.

Cradles to Crayons back-to-school event

This memory gives me hope and encouragement. But the feeling is tempered by the realization that one fabulous day of action and generosity can’t sustain all the families in need. September’s sweater weather will soon be gone and many of us will be checking to see if we need to buy our kids new winter boots and coats. Thousands of other parents will be wondering how their kids will get to school without them.

Shoshana Buchholz-Miller
Executive Director
Cradles to Crayons 

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