- Associated Press - Friday, December 25, 2015

CINCINNATI (AP) - The 8-year-old boy makes a beeline for the scarf bin and tugs out a lime green cashmere-looking number. Clearly it’s for a woman, but he doesn’t care one bit.

“Can I have this? Can I have this, please,” Gary asks, his eyes dart looking to the handful of women there to help him shop. “It’s so fancy.”

The women don’t hear him at first; they are helping a couple other elementary-school-aged boys shop at the newly formed Madhatter’s Closet at Oyler School in Lower Price Hill, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

He flashes a mega-watt smile and isn’t giving up any time soon.

“Excuse me? Can I have this?”

He wraps it around and around his neck: “It’s so warm.”

When you are a second-grader with a long walk home, nothing is more important than warmth. It trumps name brands and fitting in.

This isn’t Gary’s first trip to the Closet. And it likely won’t be his last. So many kids at Oyler, where 98 percent of students receive free lunch, need so much. The needs of the 651 preschool to high-school-aged kids rarely, if ever, diminish.

The Closet is the brainchild and passion of Danielle Mangano, a 41-year-old Indian Hill mother of four.

“These kids deserve what my kids have,” says Mangano, on a rare break from sorting clothes. She sets immediately to folding and organizing them in racks and bins by size and gender. “They need to get the basics: Food in their bellies, beds to sleep in and clean clothes that fit.”

The idea started with an email blast from a teacher just about a year ago. A program that sent food and other supplies home for the students had been cut. And when many students came back to school after the three-day Thanksgiving break, they were stomach-growling-hungry. Many did not have coats, hats or gloves, she said.

The teacher wondered what her network of friends and acquaintances- mostly suburban moms -could do. The moms mobilized, cleaned their closets, reached out to their networks and the Closet was formed- in the school’s boiler room.

It wasn’t ideal, but getting kids shoes- ones that actually fit and aren’t busted out in the sole or filled with holes -and clean socks are.

Donations poured in and the need to move became imperative, Mangano says. Word-of-mouth spread and she was told about the availability of the top floor of a renovated brick building just steps from the school and overlooking the playground. The move was a no-brainer.

With the move came more room for what she calls little luxury items: Toothpaste, toothbrushes, lotion, shampoo, conditioner, soap and body wash.

Soon came books. Now, every child who comes over to “shop” leaves with at least one book and often more, with instructions from Mama Mangano or one of her army of mom volunteers to read at least 20 minutes a day “even if no one else can read to you.”

Mangano formed a Facebook group, which is now up to more than 600 members. She updates it almost daily with needs as well as photos of the students. It has become the Closet’s primary communication tool.

As word has spread, so have donations, which are overtaking her garage. A $7,000 donation from Systems Evolution, Inc., a locally based consultant firm, has bought hundreds of pairs of new shoes. Other donors have contributed to the Hatmaker’s Foundation, a nonprofit group formed by a group of Cincinnati businessman in 2009 to help Oyler students.

And just three weeks ago, a second Closet opened its doors in a former boys’ locker room at Rees E. Price Academy, an elementary school in the neighborhood. It is run by Megan Hook and Laura Bell- two Madhatter Closet mom volunteers.

Think of it as a franchise, Hook says, but not a charity. “It’s like we are just big sisters to the kids. A place where they can come and shop. A place where we can instill a little pride.”

Often, she said, the students will come in “not feeling their best. Maybe their clothes haven’t been washed or they have holes in them or their shoes are too small. When we put them in clothes that fit, are clean and don’t have holes. They just light up. And that lights us up.”

Hook says she was inspired to volunteer in the neighborhood after reading the Enquirer’s “The Girls of Lower Price Hill.” The story featured four teenage girls and their lives in the neighborhood.

She says she had no idea that many children sleep on floors here and many have no pajamas. The neighborhood, she says, includes moms and dads who often have to choose food over “extras” like shampoo and toothpaste.

“I just had no idea. I was living in a bubble,” she says.

Gary has a bed, he tells Mangano on his way out. And now he also has a brand new pair of Nike sneakers and a red bubble jacket and is carrying a bag filled with clothes, the lime green scarf tucked on top.

He shares that bed with his siblings, he says, and yes they sure could use some sheets. A blanket would be nice. A clean towel, too.

She jams the linens in the bag and gives him a hug.

Then he whispers to her that the scarf, well, that’s for his mom.


Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, https://www.enquirer.com

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