“I’ve never gone shopping like this before.”
The First Teen Clothes Closet is not an ordinary “shopping” experience. The Closet’s footprint spans the upper level of Trinity Lutheran Church. The amount of clothing is impressive, and it has all been approved by fashion savvy youth in the community.
While these characteristics make First Teen Clothes Closet an incredible place for teens in the community to “shop,” the uniqueness of the Closet comes from the program’s mission, which extends far beyond providing access to clothing. First Teen Clothes Closet aims to show teens that they are welcomed, seen and valued.
First Teen Clothes Closet welcomes all teens in need and provides all of their goods free of charge. Teens can visit the Closet every 60 days. Unlike most stores, which divide their products based on gender, the Closet recognizes that this format does not meet everyone’s needs. Instead, the Closet divides their inventory in two large rooms for waist up and waist down clothing.
First Teen Clothes Closet was originally located at First Lutheran Church in Onalaska. However, transportation was a barrier to a large portion of their clientele. According to Shari Hegland, a member of the Closet’s steering committee, for teens without transportation who live in La Crosse, “Onalaska might as well be Madison.”
The Closet first tried to address transportation issues by arranging vans to bring teens from La Crosse to Onalaska, but in an effort to truly “meet teens where they are at” the Closet relocated to its new home in Trinity Lutheran Church, just a few blocks away from Logan Middle and High Schools. Once First Teen Clothes Closet was established in its new location, organizers recognized an unmet need.
Inadequate access to hair care products has an impact on teens psychological well being. It’s something many of us take for granted. As one mother, whose teens use the Closet, explained, “[Most people] aren’t educated about the different hair needs.”
Hair products designed specifically for people of color can be expensive, and most programs aimed at helping people meet their basic needs do not offer specialty hair products. First Teen Clothes Closet decided to create hair kits that included these products for a more inclusive “shopping” experience that would ensure everyone could find the products they need to look and feel their best.
Choya DuBois, owner of Melanin Beauty Bar, helped select the products for the hair kits. At her salon, DuBois recognizes the importance of having individualized hair care and sees proper hair care as a way to “build beauty within.” The hair kits, valued at $25-35, contain shampoo, conditioner, styling gel, castor oil, a hair pick and hair ties.
Making these products available shows teens that they are accepted, loved and beautiful exactly the way they are. When youth have access to hair products that meet their needs, they feel greater confidence, which the First Teen Clothes Closet team believes can lead to greater achievement at work and in school.
Bridget Crave, First Teen Clothes Closet steering committee member said, “Seeing people means seeing and meeting their needs.” The Closet recognizes that teens need to be treated as individuals with their own needs. The steering committee agreed that people cannot assume that what works for them works for everyone. By providing access to hair products that meet individual hair needs, First Teen Clothes Closet is showing teens they are valued and their needs matter.
At the Closet, having access to personal care products that meet individual needs is part of the “shopping” experience. First Teen Clothes Closet is doing more than just making clothing accessible, it is empowering teens.