By Todd Cohen
RALEIGH, N.C. — Susan Reiland’s daughter did not know what to do. It was 2005 and her first day as a teacher, and she found many of the children in her kindergarten class in a low-income elementary school needed basic articles of clothing.
So she phoned her mother, a former research assistant professor of statistics at N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill, who in turn started collecting used coats the children could use when the weather turned cold.
But the day after they took their coats home, half the children returned them “because their families would not believe anyone would give their child a coat,” says Dallas Bonavita, executive director of Note in the Pocket, a Raleigh nonprofit that grew out of a charitable effort Reiland formed to collect clothing for school children who need it.
The coats were sent back home again, this time with a note in the pocket of each coat that said it was a gift from the community and the child’s to keep.
Operating with an annual budget of less than $100,000 and staff of one, Note in the Pocket in 2013 delivered nearly 30,000 pieces of donated clothing worth an estimated $142,000 to over 1,500 children in Wake County public schools.
And it only has begun to address the need: Nearly 49,000 students in Wake public schools last year applied for and received lunch that was free or at a reduced price.
“We know people are struggling to feed their children,” Bonavita says. “Clothes are below that priority. There’s a correlation between not being able to feed your family and not being able to clothe them.”
Note in the Pocket partners with the Wake schools and nonprofits that focus on homelessness and transitional housing.
After registering on its website, social workers at the schools, and case workers at the nonprofits, identify and refer students who may need clothes, listing their sizes and the items they need.
From clothing donated to Note in the Pocket, volunteers in space at 2040 Newton Road pull a week’s worth of clothes for each child.
They package those clothes, which can be mixed and matched for two weeks’ worth of outfits, into a bag for the child, and label and deliver it to the referring school or nonprofit.
“We know the families can get to the school or agency,” Bonavita says.
The network of referring partners of Note in the Pocket grew last year to 90 from 12 and included such agencies as Communities in Schools of Wake County, Salvation Army of Wake County, Passage Home, and StepUp Ministry.
“We want to take clothing off their plate,” Bonavita says. “Agencies that help with housing need to concentrate on housing. If their goal is to assist with education, they need to concentrate on education.”
While it hopes eventually to expand to other communities in the state, she says, Note in the Pocket first must raise money to address unmet demand and a growing need for space.
The nonprofit has received grants from the Raleigh Kiwanis Foundation and a sponsorship from Planet Fitness, and recently raised $24,000 through a 40-day “crowdfunding” event.
And on May 10, on the campus of Dorothea Dix Hospital, it will hold its inaugural Note in the Pocket Skivvy Run.
“Clothing is a basic need,” says Reiland, who volunteers as distribution coordinator at Note in the Pocket. “And we are trying to meet the need for children who don’t have the resources to acquire the clothing.”