Mickey Cockrell found's Catie’s Closet to provide clothing for homeless students...
A not-for-profit that began three years ago in an unused Lowell High School classroom is growing rapidly with the help of local businesses, providing free clothing and toiletries to homeless students.
Named for Catie Bisson, a Lowell High School graduate who died in 2010 of a rare connective tissue disorder, Catie’s Closet is now in 16 schools in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and due to open in four Lowell schools within the next month.
“Our goal is to be in every school that needs us in the Merrimack Valley, and then the state, and then the country,” said Catie’s aunt, Mickey Cockrell, who quit her job at Kohl’s to open a closet in each school, where students referred by a teacher or social worker could find new or slightly used clothing and shoes in an array of sizes and styles, as well as toiletries like soap and shampoo.
There are an estimated 44,000 homeless students in Massachusetts — and 1.1 million in the U.S. — and lack of sufficient clothing is among the top reasons for absenteeism, according to the National Center for Homeless Education.
“They’re subject to bullying,” Cockrell said. “They come to school wearing flip-flops in the dead of winter, and they’re made fun of because they look poor.”
A 17-year-old student at Alvirne High School in Hudson, N.H., was living out of a car last fall when the school’s principal, Steve Beals, told him about Catie’s Closet.
“At first, I blatantly told him no,” said the teen, who asked that his name not be used. “I don’t like accepting free things. It didn’t feel like I earned it.”
When Beals pressed him, the student finally acquiesced and picked out two jackets, a pair of gloves and some school and bathroom supplies, but only on the condition that he stay after school and clear out the trash in the parking lot.
“I couldn’t have asked for more,” he said. “It felt good to know my school didn’t just care about grades. It made me feel relieved.”
To date, Catie’s Closet has helped about 3,000 students with the aid of local companies, including New Balance in Lawrence, which has donated shoes; Sublimagery in Boston, which has helped develop graphics; and Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union, which has donated money, held clothing drives and is sponsoring Catie’s Closet’s annual gala on March 22 at the Andover Country Club.
Over the last three months, the not-for-profit also has received aid from the Merrimack Valley Sandbox, which helps early-stage entrepreneurs accelerate their businesses or nonprofits by matching them with mentors.
Anne Marie Messier, the founder of Straight Line Management Solutions in Chelmsford, has spent a few hours each week working with Cockrell on how to brand and market Catie’s Closet.
“What impressed me most about Mickey and her team was their fearlessness and passion and drive,” Messier said. “To be around that is a breath of fresh air. Who wouldn’t want a shot of that in your life?”