Closet organizers at Portland school help students embrace winter

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PORTLAND — A lack of resources and knowledge about how to dress for winter weather can mean students at East End Community School are sometimes unprepared for the cold that grips Maine this time of year.

That’s where Ms. Di’s Closet comes in.

Started last year, the dispensary has distributed hundreds of free pairs of winter boots and coats to students in need, along with mittens, scarves, hats, snow pants and more.

“Maine winters are so ridiculously cold that it’s a real art to dress appropriately,” said volunteer Leska Tomash, who has a child at East End School.

Stephanie Hosan, another volunteer with two students enrolled in the school, said she sees the effort as a way to “give the gift of enjoying the outdoors” to kids whose parents may not have the money or the understanding of what’s needed.

Naila Wissa, community coordinator at East End School, said the clothing closet is another way for the school to ensure that the basic needs of students are being met.

“When students have the proper clothing, they come to school warm and ready to learn,” Wissa said. She also said that students with “the proper equipment will participate more,” including during recess and other outdoor learning activities.

Overall, Ms. Di’s Closet is designed to “give support and respite to families already struggling to make ends meet. Winter outerwear is often expensive, causing financial strain for families on a limited income,” Wissa said.

Linda Bancroft and Mike Russo, both alumni of Jack Elementary School, which previously stood on Munjoy Hill, created the closet as a way to give back to the neighborhood where they were raised.

The closet is named in honor of Diana Warren, a former speech therapist at East End School, who died in 2015 and was known for her “deep caring” and belief that every student could be successful, according to Wissa.

“Diana Warren made such a positive impact on students and staff alike,” she said. “It seemed only appropriate for her legacy to be commemorated with a school-based service meant to ease a family’s burden.”

Bancroft, who owns and operates Aquarius Property Management in South Portland, said the clothing closet is “an essential resource” at East End School, where more than 90 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced lunch.

Many of the students are also new Mainers, so along with low incomes, there’s a “lack of continuity in housing and employment, which means that many East End School families are simply unable to provide their growing children with warm coats, boots and winter accessories so that they can safely enjoy Maine winters,” she said.

Bancroft said what sets Ms. Di’s Closet apart is that it provides the “experience of an appealing retail space where students are encouraged to choose items they want and need.” The donated clothing, much of which is new, “is displayed neatly and rotates frequently,” she added.

The closet receives support from the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, as well as many individuals and local businesses, like Liliana’s Laundry, which is owned by Peter Donatelli and provides free dry cleaning for much of the donated clothing.

Financial donations to Ms. Di’s Closet can be sent to East End Community School, 195 North St., Portland, ME 04101. Donations of clothing can be dropped off at the school or Liliana’s Laundry during business hours.

Besides gently used apparel, Bancroft said new socks and underwear are also needed, and that last spring the clothing closet also provided new outfits for students to wear to their fifth-grade graduation ceremony.

“Every student at East End Community School may access Ms. Di’s Closet, whether the child is a fifth-grader who outgrew her winter boots or a kindergarten student who had an accident and needs clean pants immediately,” she said.

Most importantly, Bancroft said, “having a coat with a zipper that works, or boots that don’t hurt your feet, can make a big difference, both in (terms of) comfort and self-esteem.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Stephanie Hosan, left, and Leska Tomash are two of the volunteers who keep Ms. Di’s Closet running at Portland’s East End Community School.

Ms. Di’s Closet provides needy students with the outdoor gear they need to be properly dressed for a Maine winter. Founder Linda Bancroft says the closet gives stuents the “experience of an appealing retail space.”

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