When the 2016-2017 provisional class first walked into the basement of the Bristol, VA school board building, we didn’t quite know what we were getting into. Soon, though, Debbie Wagner, the executive director of Communities in Schools of Southwest Virginia, would set us straight. Before we started work, Debbie set aside some time to educate us about what The Hidden Closet, the project to which we’d be dedicating the next few months, aimed to do within the Bristol community. She told us stories of children struggling to find comfortable places to sleep in their homes, of endless cases of lice and bedbugs, and of mothers stealing toilet paper from restrooms in State Street restaurants because food stamps couldn’t provide it for her. One by one, these stories began to take root in us, and we knew that this “project” would become far more to us than just a requirement to fill. Megan Clark felt especially affected by Debbie’s stories. “Many of us don’t ever have to worry that we don’t have or can’t afford toilet paper, a can of soup, shoes without holes,” she said, “but for many in our community, those worries are real.”
The Hidden Closet is essentially that, a closet. Filled with essentials for children and teenagers like clothing, toiletries, nonperishable food and school supplies, The Hidden Closet provides opportunities for children to come and collect items they may need; however, as Debbie told us, this Closet was intended solely for children and teenagers (not their parents), as past experience has taught them that some parents might return the items to stores in order to use the refund money for other things. As Megan realized, “[T]he work being done by Debbie Wagner and The Hidden Closet is not simply amazing; it is a necessity.” Debbie’s passion for and dedication to providing basic needs for children and teenagers in the Bristol community gripped us, and we soon found that we had plenty of ways to assist her.
As we started work turning the musty school board basement into a welcoming experience for its shoppers, we realized that this task was easier said than done. We started by rearranging furniture, but we were soon cleaning, organizing donations, packing food and toiletry boxes, and considering the logical flow of necessities in the space, too. Some of us went shopping to gather more offerings for The Hidden Closet visitors, and others dedicated time to scrubbing windows and dusting shelves. Eventually we found ourselves realizing that our quest to make the Hidden Closet a welcoming place for those who needed it was essentially a quest to provide a bit more dignity and humanity for people who struggle to keep it.
Not only did this project keep us focused on a goal for our provisional year, but it also brought us closer to our community and to each other. Like many of us, Megan believes that working with The Hidden Closet was the most “real and genuine” bonding opportunity that we could have experienced. “It was during our days and evenings of service with The Hidden Closet that we realized how strong our collective desire was to make a positive impact in Bristol to reduce the hurt and need of our fellow community members. Along the way, we had a wonderful time sharing stories with each other and simply getting to know one another better.”
The 2017-2018 Provisional Class completed three 'mini projects' that have left a huge impact on our community!
In January, the provisionals raised funds and gathered in-kind donations for “Project Warmth,” an effort to create bags of warming items for Bristol’s homeless population. The girls raised several hundred dollars and put together over 65 bags and then distributed them downtown, replenishing them as needed during cold weather in the days and weeks that followed. The bags included blankets, scarves, sweaters, gloves, hand warmers, and other items for warmth and hygiene needs.
Our final mini-project was an afternoon of service at the Boys and Girls Club of Bristol, Virginia. Two of our provisionals, Geneva King and Katy Hamilton, created and conducted an art project for a group of children at the club. They spent a lot of hands-on time with them and even managed to play a few rounds of foursquare on the basketball court. The kids loved it!
In October 2017, we held a night of service sorting, organizing, and cleaning in The Hidden Closet, which works to provide for the basic needs of children in the Bristol, Virginia school system.