Columbus Grove School Nurse, Mrs. Katie Zimmerly poses as the "I" in "Kind" in the craft mural outside of her station. Students and staff who donate an item to the Caring Closet write their name in a heart and place it onto the mural before a photo of their own is taken - Putnam Sentinel
Columbus Grove School Nurse, Mrs. Katie Zimmerly poses as the "I" in "Kind" in the craft mural outside of her station. Students and staff who donate an item to the Caring Closet write their name in a heart and place it onto the mural before a photo of their own is taken. (Putnam Sentinel/Martin Verni)

COLUMBUS GROVE — “We had seen some other schools doing it, and there was some networking through our guidance department,” says Mrs. Katie Zimmerly, Nurse for Columbus Grove Local Schools when discussing the school’s new Caring Closet. The closet, which is more of an idea than a physical location, is a collaboration between the Guidance Department and Mrs. Zimmerly. It was inspired, in part, by a similar program at The Leipsic Community Center.

The Caring Closet is the name given to a variety of items meant to provide needed resources for students as they progress towards young adulthood. To the community’s credit, it is well stocked with gently-used donated goods, such as Bulldog gear, and also new items. “We’ve already given out boxes of stuff,” Mrs. Zimmerly says, “And, we have several to go, that we’ll pack up today and send home.”

“We’re doing a gear-up drive,” she continues, “Where we’re taking gently-used Bulldog gear, washing it, and recycling it for some of our kids who could use some things. And then also, any other clothing things that we can use. Things like underwear, leggings, socks, gloves, flip-flops - we have lots of students who blow-out their shoes during the day. [The closet is] just something to keep [students] here and keep them moving through the day.”

“There are other health and beauty-aid things,” Mrs. Zimmerly adds, “Like deodorants, shampoos, body washes, toothbrushes, toothpaste, anything that they can use while they’re here or at home.”

The items mentioned, along with many others, have been collected for the same reason that the program now exists. There is a need for it.

“We’re very aware that the need existed,” says Mrs. Zimmerly. “We have a large population that has a lot of income issues. Things like free lunches. Things like a lot of stained clothes with holes. Students maybe cannot always meet our dress code requirements, because they need some things. So, we’re trying to help them meet those needs, and to take that stressor off of them, so that they can focus in the classroom a little better.”

When asked what the response to the Caring Closet’s creation has been from the wider community, Mrs. Zimmerly says, “Overwhelmingly positive.”

“We have a lot of families that we maybe wouldn’t have expected, that maybe were on our list of vulnerable students, that are bringing in bags of things. They want to help. Maybe they’ve benefited as a Christmas Family in the past. And now, they’re at the point where they can donate back, and they’re really excited.”

“Other are kids are coming in too saying, ‘This makes me feel like such a good person.’ It’s been a wonderful experience, with the staff, the community, and the students.”

The school also recognizes that it must always work to meet the privacy needs of students anytime they access the resources available to them, be it from the Caring Closet or through other supportive efforts. To help mitigate any potential issue, the closet is open to all of the school’s students.

Mrs. Zimmerly’s comment regarding flip-flops hints towards one way all students might benefit. As nearly any parents can confirm, kids of any age can be very hard on their clothing, and shoes are no different. Given the total number of students attending Columbus Grove Local Schools, it remains reasonable that any given student might ‘blow their shoes out’ on any given day. Those flip-flops, then, may also come in handy for any student on any given day. To some degree, this is true for all items in the closet - from the clothes to the food to personal hygiene products.

Though the ‘Caring Closet’ idea originated as a means of assisting students who may come from homes experiencing some difficulty, the benefit is really for all students. It aims to provide whatever may be needed so students can stay focused on learning, and also on simply being a kid. The Caring Closet serves preschool through 12th grade.

“And, by making it private,” Mrs. Zimmerly adds, “Students can let a teacher know, let the guidance office know, let the secretaries know in the main office, let me know if it’s not something they want to carry out with them. We’ll make sure it’s delivered to their locker by the end of the day in a Walmart bag or in a plastic grocery sack. So that way, they can just take it home as-is.”

The Caring Closet is also intended to promote a culture of kindness and the idea of paying good fortune forward among the student body. For each month of the school year, each grade level, 5th grade through 12th, is presented with a specific request for items to be donated, such as deodorant for 5th graders and body spray for 6th graders. School staff associated with those grade levels are also encouraged to donate specific items as well.

When students or staff make a donation, they place their name on a small heart that is then displayed on a kindness craft-paper mural in the hallway outside the nurse’s station. The mural consists of the word ‘Kind’ spelled out, with the ‘I’ missing. The student or staff member is then invited to take a picture with themselves posing as the ‘I’ in ‘Kind’ for sharing among friends or on social media.