Jennifer Smith's Story
Jennifer Smith always knew she wanted to work with children.
In fact, Jennifer moved from Sebastian, Florida to Jacksonville to attend the University of North Florida (UNF) specifically to major in education. After graduation, Jennifer learned that there was not only a teacher shortage, but also incentives (such as student loan forgiveness) for teachers willing to work in inner city schools. “I always knew I wanted to work inner city to start,” Jennifer said, “but I honestly think anybody going into education should at least do a few years inner city.” She stayed in Jacksonville and started her teaching career at R.L. Brown Elementary. She also taught at Twin Lakes Academy Elementary, and spent her last year as a Reading Interventionist at Martin Luther King FAME Academy. Jennifer spent a total of 15 years in the classroom, teaching Language Arts and Social Studies to 3rd and 4th graders.
The motivation behind The Closet
Jennifer identified the need for clothing and hygiene items for students early in her career and reflected on the situational poverty she witnessed every day as a teacher. Before she even had the vision for The Giving Closet Project, she noticed the number of students she had that were coming in and out of foster care or were living at the Sulzbacher Center. Jennifer, as well as many other teachers (and even the principal at her school) would buy clothing, shoes, food, and hygiene products for their students. She thought, “We are going to make sure our students have everything they need. If their basic needs aren’t being met – clothing, food, shelter – how do you expect them to perform academically in the classroom?”
“People tend to think that homelessness means living on the streets,” Jennifer explained, but situational poverty manifests itself differently. It was years of seeing students who were living with other family members, couch surfing, living in motels regularly, living out of their cars, and sometimes two or three families living together in one-bedroom apartments that made Jennifer realize, “Even if they’re not identified as homeless, that doesn’t mean that there’s not a need. Student homelessness has jumped from 30,000 to more than 75,000 in just ten years in the state of Florida. In Duval County, that number is more than 3,300,” Jennifer explained.
Food was another problem area that Jennifer identified. “Food insecurity is very real,” she said. “I know a lot of teachers who would bring snacks for their students,” recalling how the principal at the MLK FAME Academy would go to Walmart every morning to buy fresh fruit for teachers and students. “One of the things I did for many years was Pancake Friday. I brought my griddle in, I got blueberries and whipped cream and I made pancakes for my students,” she reminisced.
The "Ah-ha!" moment
“I had a little girl in my class and she was a straight-A student and was coming to school regularly. Then I noticed that she stopped coming to school regularly. And even when she did come, she was sleeping a lot,” Jennifer recalled. “She had this pink sweater that she would wear every single day and she was getting bullied and picked on because it was filthy. Her grades started struggling…I knew something was going on.” Jennifer tried talking to her, but the student really didn’t want to talk about it. “I pulled up to school one morning and I look over and I see her and her mom in the car next to me. I could see her changing in the car and the back seat was full of trash bags, so I knew immediately that they were homeless and living out the car,” Jennifer said. That morning, her student broke down crying and opened up to her about their situation. That’s when Jennifer and a few other teachers decided to help. “I ended up washing clothes for my student and her mom and another teacher ended up buying a brand new pair of sneakers for her,” she recalled.
That same week, Jennifer had car-rider duty. “It dawned on me,” she said, “Kids leave stuff all over the place. Jackets, lunch boxes, water bottles…I mean, they’re left all over the school, out on the playground…” After a student couldn’t find his jacket, Jennifer encouraged him to look in Lost and Found. That’s when she realized that no one wants to look through a dirty mound of Lost and Found items, including parents. “I think there was a day and age when a lot of Lost and Found stuff might have been donated to Goodwill and other thrift stores, but I know a lot of schools have no choice but to toss the stuff out just because of the condition it’s in. So it dawned on me… I was sitting there in my zone for car-rider duty, which was right there by Lost and Found. Why not take all this clothing, that is probably about to get thrown away, launder it, build some racks, and let our homeless students have access to some of this stuff that’s not claimed?” That moment was the birth and concept of The Giving Closet Project.
In April 2016, Jennifer bagged up 21 garbage bags worth of stuff from Lost and Found and was determined to find a laundromat or a cleaner that would help her launder everything. She went into Beach Cleaners, where the workers seemed stunned by the amount of clothes. After learning that she was a teacher and that it would cost her a small fortune, they laundered everything for her at a fraction of the cost and even helped her display it on racks. That’s when Jennifer realized that this could really help teachers and educators when it comes to getting clothing for their students.
It quickly became a concept that was about much more than clothes. Looking back, Jennifer remembered the moment when she thought, “Kids have other needs besides jackets. I want to create some sort of system for anything that a student might need – clothing, shoes, hygiene products, school supplies, books, backpacks – kinda like a one-stop shop, anything at all.” Another teacher at Jennifer’s school saw what she was doing and wanted to help bring this concept to life. Together, they developed a referral form and a website.
At first, Jennifer took the items back to the school, but quickly realized she needed a warehouse space. Her neighbor had a friend who owned Jax Party Bus & Limousine off of Everlee Road and Beach Boulevard. He wasn’t utilizing the indoor section of his property and let her use his company’s space. She renovated the space as best as she could and found a new home for her clothing. It was from this location that Jennifer was able to serve students for the first year. Teachers, school counselors, and social workers would submit referrals and Jennifer would get volunteers from the community to assist with filling orders. She acquired her first clothing racks from Home Depot and Amazon before Florida Blue donated her true first set of racks. Florida Blue also helped her paint and renovate the space, which was about 1,500 square feet.
From side gig to full-time non-profit
It only took Jennifer a month to file her 501(c)(3) paperwork. She quickly realized that she needed to raise funds and learn the art of starting a non-profit. “I realized that there are Lost and Founds everywhere, and with the needs, this is definitely a project that can be implemented in other cities,” she said, “I had a big vision from the very beginning.”
It wasn’t always easy. In fact, Jennifer faced a great deal of criticism and judgement for her vision. “It was tough,” she said, “There I was, teaching, I was going through a divorce, I have two daughters, I was tutoring two to three days a week, I was also delivering groceries for Shipt. I felt like there was a lot of judgement placed on me just for starting this. A lot of people laughed, said I was crazy for taking this on, said I should be focusing on my own kids, and in no position to start a business, especially without having the startup funds… but I feel like the more that people attacked and told me I couldn’t do this, it just gave me more fuel to keep going and pushing forward because I knew where my heart was and I was doing it for the right reasons.”
Finding the funds
As an English teacher, Jennifer started writing and applying for grants, but was often turned down due to not having her 501(c)(3) in place long enough. At one point, Jennifer met with the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, and the president at the time encouraged her not to give up. He also encouraged her to reach out to Missy Peters, Executive Director of the Community First Cares Foundation. Jennifer connected with Missy right away, who wanted to meet her in person and see the closet for herself. “I shared my story with her,” Jennifer said, “and together we shed some tears.”
Missy wanted to help. She not only encouraged Jennifer to apply for a grant, but also present her story to the Foundation’s Board of Directors. A few weeks later, Jennifer learned that the Community First Cares Foundation decided to sponsor a new closet space for Jennifer. Serendipitously, the new closet’s location is at Martin Luther King FAME Academy, the school where Jennifer finished her teaching career. From there, Community First organized clothing drives at its company headquarters for uniforms, supplies, and more. During the initial setup, Community First employee volunteers loaded up a van and helped put the new closet together. The Foundation held a formal ribbon cutting ceremony to not only help Jennifer launch her new closet space, but also symbolize the inauguration of a new partnership.
Credit Union Roots
Having been a former member of Space Coast Credit Union in Sebastian, Florida, Jennifer knew that she wanted to continue using a local credit union for her banking needs when she moved to Jacksonville, Florida. During her college and early teaching days, several of her teacher friends recommended Educational Community Credit Union, which was Community First’s former name until 2005. Jennifer officially became a member in 2007. Since then, she’s enjoyed various consumer products, such as an auto loan, line of credit, and a credit card. In 2016, she also opened her business account with Community First for the Giving Closet Project.
Finding her way
The new closet opened during Jennifer’s last year of teaching, and she realized that doing both, especially in the same location, may be a conflict of interest. She had to ensure that during school hours, that her focus was on the students and not the closet (even though it was easily accessible on site). It was always Jennifer’s passion to run the closet full time, so once she established the funds, she resigned from teaching and made the transition. The Children’s Service Council of Palm Beach County awarded her with a large grant in November 2018 to test a franchise model in Palm Beach County. In January 2019, Jennifer successfully opened a closet in south Florida, and has served more than 60 students so far.
Gaining inspiration from her students, and herself
During her last year of teaching, Jennifer was very transparent about the closet and the motivation behind starting it. She needed a name, and had recently taught The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, to her students, which is a book about a tree that gives and gives without expecting anything in return. That is the same spirit of the closet, so her official name for the non-profit aptly became The Giving Closet Project.
During her last year of teaching, Jennifer started having “morning meetings” with her students who needed a safe space to talk. That student who had the old, pink sweater started opening up about her situation to the rest of the class. “In those last few months of school, I think we shed more tears together as a class. There is such a stigma attached to poverty and a lot of kids don’t ever want to talk about what’s going on in their lives, but I realized that the more that we could open up and talk about what’s going on in our lives without placing judgement, it feels really good,” Jennifer said. “I saw a decrease in bullying that last few months of school; it was really great.”
Jennifer gets the same question all the time, which is, “Why are you doing this?” Much like her students, Jennifer has her own story. “We all have a story, and from the outside looking in, sometimes you can’t always tell what someone is going through. There were lots of things in my childhood that only my closest friends and my family knew, but there was stuff I never wanted to talk about. But I am who I am today because of what I went through as a child. I’ve been in the places where many of these students are right now. The Giving Closet Project has helped me heal and overcome a lot of the brokenness of my childhood,” she said.
“We talk about trauma and mental health and I can openly say that an outsider looking in would think that I had the picture-perfect life from ages 0-5. Then I got caught up in a custody battle and my father had some mental health issues that he refused to address. My sister and I were the milk carton girls in the 80s and I knew what it was like to leave with nothing but the clothes on my back and go across the country and wear nothing but hand-me-down clothes from people. I wanted students to know that they’re not alone. Over the years, I built relationships with my students and eventually opened up to them about some of my past. And I would tell my students, ‘We can sit here and use that as an excuse or we can rise above that and become better.’”
Jennifer Smith has certainly come full circle. There may not have been a Giving Closet Project when Jennifer was a child, but that’s not stopping her from creating one for the children who need it today. It’s also about erasing the stigma of situational poverty. “I think once you can get them [the students] to open up and get the dialogue going, it builds a sense of security, and they feel like they can trust you. They realize, ‘Wow, you have issues, too, I’m not alone.’”
When asked what’s next for The Giving Closet Project, Jennifer said, “It’s about developing the whole child – mind, body, soul, physical – and if a child’s basic needs aren’t being met, nothing else will happen. But if we can meet their basic needs – the clothing, the food, the shelter, it’s going to give them a self-esteem boost and they’ll get to hold their heads a little bit higher and hopefully they’ll say, ‘Okay, I can do this.’”
“I don’t look at this [project] as a Band-Aid, I look at this as a stepping stone into education reform,” she said. Since April 2016, Jennifer has laundered close to 100,000 pounds of unclaimed clothing and continues to build and work on creating a sound and sustainable infrastructure for the organization.
And she’s not stopping anytime soon.