Tucked away in a corner of Bradley Central High School is something one might not expect to find in a public school.
A small room off an ordinary classroom has been turned into a clothes closet where students who have trouble affording new clothes can visit, pick out and take home clothing items for free.
Teacher Robert Parker said he was looking for ways his students could volunteer to help those around them. The ideas he and the students came up with is now called the Bear Boutique.
As the father of an only child, Parker said he saw his son grow drastically taller between his freshman and senior years of high school. As a teacher, he saw some students were growing and in need of new clothes, but unable to afford them.
“I’ve seen a lot of kids who didn’t necessarily have a lot of money,” he said. “There’s definitely a need.”
Some 50 percent of all students are on the free and reduced lunch program at Bradley Central, and he said many of those same students have needs in other areas.
Parker said the Bear Boutique offers students in need of clothes a discreet way to get what they need without feeling embarrassed about it.
The student-run “shop” is stocked with new or gently used clothes donated by students, teachers and members of the community.
Parker said students take care to make sure clothes, shoes and accessories like belts are in good condition and practical for wearing at school, per dress code rules.
Other clothing items that students cannot make immediate use of — like a boldly printed sundress — are donated to places like The Caring Place and Goodwill.
The boutique is open for business in the mornings before school and the afternoons when school is out for the day. there is a nearby entrance from the outside so students can come and go without walking through the school’s halls.
“We didn’t want them to feel afraid,” Parker said.
Word of the boutique has so far been spread by word of mouth among the school’s staff and students.
Sometimes a teacher will have a private conversation with a student they suspect can use new clothes and let them know of the opportunity.
He said having that type of conversation with a student had the potential to be a “touchy situation,” but he said it was important for them to know what resources are available to them, if needed.
“The message we try to get across is we can help you,” Parker said.
What started as an occasional volunteer opportunity three or four years ago has since evolved into an official student club.
Club members are responsible for keeping the Bear Boutique running each school day and sorting and stocking when supplies get low. There is always a need for more clothes, and the public is welcome to donate them, student Morgan Mitchell said.
Student Tiffany Campbell said it can be rewarding to see a student who has had to wear much the same thing every day have the chance to look and feel their best with some variety in their wardrobe.
“If they come in here and get something new, you know you’ve helped someone,” Campbell said.
As word of the program continues to spread both inside the school and out, Parker said he hopes other schools will consider taking the idea and running with it so their students can benefit.
He added the had discussed the possibility with a local middle school just a week ago.
For more information about the Bear Boutique, email Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the school at 476-0650.