As though the icy grip of the Great Depression were not painful enough, School Superintendent James Skiles noticed a worrisome trend in the winter of 1930: Large numbers of Evanston grade school children were missing school.
Suspicious that illness was the culprit, Mr. Skiles asked school physician Mary Baird to investigate. After consulting with the visiting nurse and truant officer, Dr. Baird reached a stark conclusion: Poor children were staying home because they lacked clothing, especially shoes.
Local parent-teacher organizations rallied. The next year, 1931, they founded the Evanston School Children’s Aid Society, vowing, “No Evanston child should miss a single day of school for need of warm, sturdy clothing.”
More than 80 years later the all-volunteer organization called Evanston School Children’s Clothing Association, ESCCA, is still dedicated to ensuring that every Evanston elementary school child has a week’s worth of warm winter school clothes.
ESCCA members try to see that the clothing they distribute, whether donated or purchased new, is stylish as well as sturdy and that clients are served efficiently and discreetly in a way that is mindful of their dignity.
Longtime volunteer Sally Lynch describes ESCCA as “very straightforward.” The organization still hews to a clear-cut goal, using a direct approach that has not been obscured by layers of bureaucracy.
While its mission is of the highest order – clothing ranks with food and shelter as a basic human need – the group itself is unpretentious. “Sorts” and “serves” are plain ESCCA-speak for the organization’s two main functions. The volunteers like each other. Ms. Lynch compares them to “the Friday afternoon knitting group” and says, “There are a lot of longtime volunteers who have a heart for ESCCA.”
Newer board member Enid Shapiro says “the kids’ reaction, the kindness of people” and “the big-hearted volunteers” – plus the fact that she likes organizing things – keep her involved.
A 23-member board, along with volunteers from churches and community groups as well as schools, does most of the organization’s work. At Wednesday and Friday morning “sorts,” a team of volunteers assist in the ongoing process of sorting donated clothing and restocking shelves, racks and bins. At Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evening and Saturday morning “serves,” volunteers assist families in choosing appropriate clothing from a predetermined list.
No child can be served unless he or she has a referral sheet. Parents may call the school to request ESCCA services. After the health clerk completes the referral and sends it to ESCCA, a board member schedules an appointment for the family.
By 8:45 a.m. on a Friday the sorters are rolling the big, white bins from outside the District 65 administration building, 1500 McDaniel Ave., into the sorting room, pulling clothes from bags onto the long table. Evanstonians donate so many clothes that ESCCA had to add a second sort day. ESCCA serves as a clearinghouse for the mountains of clothes not fit for K-8 students, says Ms. Shapiro. Smaller sizes go to Family Focus or the preschools in the building, prom dresses to the Woman’s Club and so on.
“We sort for appropriateness and condition and for clothes that pass the style test,” Ms. Shapiro says. ESCCA recipients prize the best of them – in-style jackets and T-shirts and jeans in like-new condition from brands they and other Evanston school kids know.
The sorters hang new donations by size and color or fold them in bins by type, gender and size, straightening bins that were rumpled during the previous night’s serve.
It is all about providing a well-organized and pleasant experience for the clients. “We want it to feel like going to Old Navy or Gap,” Ms. Shapiro says –
like shopping. “It’s important to have the kids feel welcome,” says co-president Cari O’Donnell.
Children begin their night at ESCCA by writing their name on the big white bag they will fill. Then a volunteer – one of the four from North End Mothers Club this night – takes a child with a parent to find a winter coat, two pairs of jeans, and a number of shirts and/or sweaters.
Volunteers ask, “What’s your favorite color?” and “What do you think about that one?” They suggest, “Let’s see if we can find some colored jeans. I can tell you like colors.” One volunteer speaks Spanish, but an older brother can also translate. Parents have the final say on any item. Mostly, the children are smiling.
ESCCA served 650 children last year. Each one of them goes home with some new clothes as well as a pile of gently used items. New mittens and hat, six new pairs of underwear and socks, new sneakers and new or like-new boots go in the bag.
Ms. Lynch has been the shoe buyer for years. She gets 60% of the boots online but shops locally for sneakers. “We get more variety,” she says, “and I like doing it.” Some Evanston stores call her in advance of sales.
She has been working with ESCCA since 1978. Then, fewer women had jobs outside the home. Board meetings were on Monday morning, she says, and children were taken out of school to be served. ESCCA had a summer sale so vast that eventually, she says, the space it required and the money spent on tents and security “impinged on” ESCCA’s services to kids.
ESCCA’s move in 2000 from a decrepit coach house on Asbury Avenue behind the mansion that housed the School District 65 administration to a suite of rooms in the new Joseph E. Hill administration building gave the organization “an incredible new lease,” Ms. Lynch says.
“We’re very grassroots,” Ms. Shapiro says. “No balls or silent auctions.” Yet the need has increased over the years, which means ESCCA is always looking for high-quality, like-new clothing, more volunteers and monetary donations. Coldwell Banker sponsors a pumpkin patch sale in October. Some elementary schools invite children to decorate paper mittens and hang them on a mitten tree, bringing a donation if they can. But the annual appeal in the fall is ESCCA’s main source of revenue, say fundraising co-chairs Becky Kremin and Regina Wooten, adding, “We are lucky to live in such a generous community.”