FARGO-Just off the Fargo North High School gymnasium, up a flight of stairs, is an old athletic equipment room. Trophies from the school's successful teams still fill shelves. Behind a section of chain-link fence is hockey equipment, uniforms and pads used by the Spartan skaters. The air is tinged, frankly, with that special smell of well-used hockey gear.
This is where Assistant Principal Kathy Neumann-Cieslak and a growing number of faculty, staff, students and community members are planting roots for the "Open Door," a hybrid food pantry and free clothing room for students in need. As Neumann-Cieslak and teacher/librarian Karee Bednar gave a quick tour, a couple of volunteers were hanging a few shirts and arranging some recently donated swimsuits and shoes. Students were returning Thursday, Aug. 24, and they were putting on the finishing touches.
"This is a good start," Bednar said. "It's going to get bigger and we have room to grow. It is a definite need."
The idea is to provide students who need basic necessities-food, toiletry items, shoes, clothing-a helping hand. There are students who are homeless. There are students whose families don't have enough money to buy what they need. There are students who just need a little aid temporarily to get through a tough week or month. They can contact a teacher, counselor or trusted adult and take what they need from the "Open Door."
If a student wants to visit the room after school or another time to ensure others aren't aware, that will be arranged.
This is not necessarily a new idea. Teachers and staff have a long history of keeping an eye out for kids in crisis. "Open Door" is just a little more out in the open, publicly asking for donations.
"I think all the schools in town have some sort of place like this, where students can get some things they need. Maybe in some schools it's a closet or smaller space, but we've always tried to help kids when we can," Neumann-Cieslak said. "If you look in any teacher's desk, I'd bet you'd find granola bars or toothpaste or other things they can give to students. This is just a little more formal, a little more structured."
The goal is student success. If a young person comes to school hungry, or doesn't know if they'll have a jacket in time for winter, or needs a new toothbrush-it distracts from their ability to learn. If they are worried about life's basic needs, they can't progress much beyond taking care of those needs.
"If they don't have food and shelter, the basic things, it's really hard to educate them," Neumann-Cieslak said.
One wall of the space is covered with small bins on shelves. They are filled with hotel-sized shampoo, conditioner, soap and lotion. There are toothbrushes, toothpaste and bottles of mouthwash by the dozen. A back corner has things like bras and socks. There are rows of dry food items like Ramen, oatmeal and granola bars. Shirts, pants and jackets hang from a rack with shoes stacked on top. There are even rolls of toilet paper and paper towels.
The basics most students take for granted.
Neumann-Cieslak and others had a vision for "Open Door" and began working on it last spring. Like most great ideas, it needed money to get off the ground. Bell Bank provided it with some pay-it-forward funding. The ball hasn't stopped rolling.
"People have just come out of the woodwork to help," Neumann-Cieslak said. "They want to get involved. They want to be part of this great project."
People have donated whatever they could, dropping off the little shampoo and conditioner bottles from hotel stays. A local dentist gave boxes of sample-sized toothpaste, mouthwash and floss.
"We're good for about six years there," Neumann-Cieslak joked.
There are bigger plans. There's room for a refrigerator, so one goal is to offer fresh fruits and vegetables. Another is to have donations of gas cards, gift cards or bus passes so students who have transportation issues can get to school.
"We've provided some basics and we know some other areas we want to go, but what we're really hoping is that the kids will tell us what they need," Neumann-Cieslak said. "Each family, each situation is different. Hopefully we can have that dialogue with the kids and they can tell us the things they need."