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Teens hit growth spurts. Clothes and shoes wear out. And when a family is struggling to make ends meet, new winter coats often don't make the cut.

Enter the West Albany High School Clothes Closet, which just wrapped up its first year of operation.

While located at West Albany, at 1130 Queen Ave. SW, volunteers say the closet is available to all Albany students, who can use it as needed to pick up a warm jacket, a pair of jeans or a pack of socks. They can shop its shelves for items for siblings, too.

Mary Harer, a West Albany parent, and Krista Hartman, a retired West Albany business teacher, volunteer their time to run the clothing operation. They spend a few hours each week sorting, cleaning, arranging and cycling through the donations, which range from shoes to shirts to shampoo.

"We'll take everything," Hartman said.

Added Harer: "We even have bathing suits."

Principal Susie Orsborn started the effort in fall 2017, Harer said. 

"She saw me in the hallway one day and stopped in her tracks, and backed up, and said, 'Mary Harer, have I got a job for you,'" Harer said, laughing. "Then she gave me her idea for this clothes closet."

Harer had been thinking about a similar effort anyway as she sorted through items outgrown by her own sons. "I thought, wouldn't it be great to give them away directly to families who needed them?" 

The first incarnation of the clothing closet was just a few square feet tucked into the back of a storage area. Now, however, Harer and Hartman have arranged the storage space into the equivalent of a small boutique, complete with clothing racks and shelves. One whole corner is devoted to hygiene supplies.

Families have been quick to donate, the volunteers said, although more items are always welcome, as long as they are either new or very gently used. Girls leggings are a particular need at the moment, as are boys tennis shoes. 

Think "teen style" and "teen brand" when donating, Hartman said. "Maybe not something that's Coldwater Creek." 

The volunteers also could use extra help each week with sorting, laundering and parceling out items that won't work to other organizations.

Students who use the closet sometimes ask West Albany counselors directly for help. Other times, teachers refer a student they've heard about, or find out about a need through a chance conversation.

Karen Beattie, counselor for the sophomore class, remembers talking to a student recently about a separate issue when she learned the student's mother had just lost her job.

"I said, sweetie, we can get you your things," Beattie said. She invited the student to check out the clothes closet and helped her find items for her siblings as well as herself.

Hartman was subbing one day when she came in contact with a boy who didn't have a professional outfit for a job fair. She brought him to the closet, where he chose shoes, pants, a shirt and a gray double-breasted peacoat.

"He says, 'When do I have to bring this back?'" Hartman recalled. When she told him the items were his to keep, "he just beamed. 'I've always wanted a coat like this!' It brings tears to my eyes."

The clothing closet is open to all students regardless of income or family situation, but the volunteers say they see evidence that severe need is growing.

The Oregon Department of Education tracks the number of students in public schools who live in a homeless situation at some point during the year. The department defines "homeless" as lacking a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence, including students who are couch-surfing or living with extended family as well as those in emergency shelters or substandard housing.

Since 2012, when ODE first started reporting this data, the total of homeless students in kindergarten through 12th grade has increased by 20 percent. The 2017-18 count was nearly 22,000 students statewide. Of those, a little more than 1,000 live in Linn County, and another 259 are in Benton.

The growing needs make resources like the clothing closet just that much more critical, West's volunteers and staff said. 

"We're the first point of contact for some of these kids," said Ryan Graham, counselor for the junior class. "There are resources available."

Said Beattie: "It's just nice to be able to meet a basic need for some students. You can kind of just see one burden taken off of them."

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