SOUTH PORTLAND — A student clothing and food pantry at South Portland High School is offering everything from snacks to prom dresses this spring.
Cecile Laplante, a French teacher for 40 years, oversees the Riot Rack project, which collects food, clothing and school supplies for all students.
“So many kids are in need,” South Portland High School Assistant Principal Kimberlee Bennett said.
The program got its start when a student needed winter boots, and has evolved in the ensuing four years.
It started with an email to school staff, asking if there were any size-10 pairs of boots available for donation. The following day Bennett had six pairs in her office.
In the years since those five extra pairs of boots were received, staff and students have donated money, clothes and footwear for all ages. The Riot Rack has also teamed up to pay for heating oil for students.
All teachers have access to the pantry, and students often approach a trusted educator to let them into the Riot Rack. Laplante said students often seek privacy in the room, but the stigma that was once attached to seeking aid from the program has diminished, since it’s available to all students.
Laplante said the program also illustrates how students want to help other students, filling backpacks with food and gift cards for classmates after learning some of their peers were homeless.
The school will even make deliveries to families if they don’t have access to transportation.
Prom dresses are a new addition this year.
“We want every senior girl to be able to go to go prom,” Laplante said, noting the dress is a pinnacle part of that experience, especially for first-generation students.
For them, the dance, culturally centered in the United States, is exciting. Prom is May 13, and Laplante said many of the donated dresses, of all colors and cuts, have been spoken for, along with accompanying shoes and purses.
Laplante often engages students to work in the program, including those in French Club and National Honor Society, who help organize the space where clothing and food is housed in a re-purposed third-floor classroom.
“It has been so humbling and fulfilling to do this,” she said of managing the Riot Rack.
Laplante said her interest in the program is linked to volunteering with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, based in Portland, where she works with an attorney doing translating work for immigrant families from Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“The population has changed, and it’s all for the best. The diversity is wonderful here,” she said of South Portland.
Laplante grew up in a family of eight whose first language was French, and remembered what it was like not having a lot of clothes. Her mother, Fernande, was active in her church community and charity, and her daughter, Elizabeth, served in the Peace Corps, so public service is of generational importance for her family.
All these experiences come together in her desire to help manage and expand the Riot Rack.
She said the cafeteria staff does an excellent job ensuring students in need have meals, which includes packing food for them to take home. Students also care about how they look, and how clothes help them express themselves, or just fit in. The Riot Rack fills that unique goal.
Laplante said students are often excited to see what’s new in the rack, adding she now is able to identify what items a particular student or their family may be interested in.
The Rack, Laplante said, not only connects students with the things they want and need. It has also allowed her to connect with many students she might not otherwise get to know.
“The best part of my day is often coming here,” she said.
French teacher Cecile Laplante, who organizes the Riot Rack food and clothing pantry at South Portland High school, shows off an array of prom dresses donated to the project this year.