Clothed in self-esteem

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Rules for students at The Carwise Mall in Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor, Florida. The Carwise Mall gives students the opportunity to have access to clothes, school supplies and other items they may not be able to obtain otherwise due to family financial limitations.

Florida Kiwanis club funds in-school boutique for homeless students.

Story by Cindy Dashnaw • Photos by Eve Edelheit

The sun shines 361 days a year on the Pinellas peninsula, situated between Tampa Bay, Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico. The area draws enough tourists to fill 5 million hotel beds. But the sun that tans those tourists also beats down on the 4,019 area students who are homeless.

Many of these students now attend Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor, especially after Hurricane Maria drove Puerto Rican families north, many with only the clothes on their backs. For kids having to enter a new school, inadequate clothing can be a real source of stress.

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Principal Robert Vicari of Carwise Middle School poses for a portrait at Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor, Florida.

“They just want to be part of the group,” says Carwise Principal Robert Zicari. 

That’s one reason he readily agreed to a shopping mall of sorts inside his school. A student sparked the idea by asking teacher’s assistant Penny Kelly if she could give a pair of sneakers to a boy whose shoes didn’t fit. Just two years earlier, this student’s own family had no food. 

Kelly began dreaming of a place where kids could get clothing without being embarrassed. She approached Dave Lindeman, longtime liaison between Carwise and the Top of the Bay Kiwanis Club. Lindeman arranged for her to make the case to his fellow Kiwanians, who readily agreed to help. With Kiwanis’ backing, the shop was on its way. Top of the Bay joined with members of its sponsored Carwise Middle School Builders Club to set up the new shopping destination.

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Bags available for students to put their clothes into at The Carwise Mall in Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor, Florida. The Carwise Mall gives students the opportunity to have access to clothes, school supplies and other items they may not be able to obtain otherwise due to family financial limitations.

Today students can look through racks of clothes and explore neat shelves of shoes, jewelry and belts at Carwise Mall. Club-supplied toiletries, underwear and socks fill baskets and drawers. A mannequin shows off middle-school fashions. The shop even has a dressing room.

What the mall does not have is a crowd. Kelly, Lindeman and Zicari vigorously protect students’ privacy, allowing just one shopper at a time. Their selections are disguised in donated bags from Macy’s, Hollister and other trendy stores. 

“It’s a good system,” Zicari says. “Parents love the idea, and no student has ever said they didn’t want to use it. They know the process is private.” 

Lindeman, Kelly and Zicari now are meeting with principals and Builders Clubs at other middle schools to offer guidance on establishing similar shops. Kelly wishes they could better describe “those moments of pureness, that sincere thankfulness.”

For his part, Lindeman puts the club’s commitment into succinct perspective.

 “We are part of Carwise Middle School, and Carwise Middle School is part of us.”

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Penny Kelly, teacher of Carwise Middle School and Kiwanis volunteer Dave Lindeman pose for a portrait in the Carwise Mall at Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor, Florida. The Carwise Mall gives students the opportunity to have access to clothes, school supplies and other items they may not be able to obtain otherwise due to family financial limitations.

This story originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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