CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – Chronic absences due to a lack of clean clothes can take a devastating toll on a student’s overall success in school. By removing access barriers to learning, the Community Partnership Schools model is helping more Clay County children realize their full potential.

Ernest Hamilton, the Florida Regional Executive Director for Children’s Home Society, said this makes a difference.

“We know how important it is for children to feel safe and secure and have normalcy,” Hamilton said. “This is something we take for granted, like having clean clothes, and just the point of a child being embarrassed about that is a thought that sometimes people don’t think about.”

The new laundry center and clothing exchange at Wilkinson Jr. High School in Clay County provides students, their families and the surrounding community access to a boutique-style shop. It’s complete with dressing rooms, where clothes, shoes and accessories for all ages are free. The center also provides free access to washing machines and dryers, along with food and hygiene products.

“A new outfit, a new pair of shoes makes you feel really good about yourself, makes you feel like you’re on top of the world,” Hamilton said. “We live in a cruel world sometimes and children and people can be pretty mean, so when you can go in there and feel good about yourself, it makes a difference.”

Margaret Padgett has been a Clay County bus driver for 30 years and said students are in dire need of the new facility, which opens Tuesday.

“This is awesome because they got the clothes, you can come get clothes, and now they have the facility where if you don’t have a washer and dryer you can bring them here and they’ll help you get your clothes washed,” Padgett said. “I have some students that I carry that I thought may need some help. So, I came over here and got them some stuff and their mother was very appreciative. … Pay it forward. I’ve been down before, been brought back. I’ve had things help me, it’s time to pass it on.”

Christina Cornwell, the principal of Wilkinson Junior High School, said children’s lack of access to clean clothing and food impacts them academically and socially.

“That is devastating for a child. And even though our teachers are trained to get over things like that. You start to get complaints from kids, ‘I don’t want to sit next to that child,’ ‘they smell,’ ‘they’re never clean.’ Children shouldn’t have to go through that if we can do something here at the school to take care of that,” Cornwell said.

She said a couple of years ago she was helping with the issue on her own time.

“I was taking laundry home for some of our families. Just on the weekends to do a couple of loads of laundry and bringing them back on Monday, dropping them off at the parent’s home on the way to school,” Cornwell said.

Now, the center is available to help even more families. Cornwell said the school hopes to serve at least 25% of its students with the new service.

“Especially during a pandemic, a lot of people have lost their jobs. They need the food. They need the access to the laundry facility. So we want to address those barriers that children face and families face, and we want to take those barriers away so they can focus on their academic needs and be ready to learn,” said Rebecca Couch with Community Partnership Schools.

Wilkinson Junior High School, a Community Partnership School, is a collaborative partnership among Children’s Home Society of Florida, Baptist Health, St. Johns River State College and Clay County School District.

Together, partners focus on removing tough barriers to learning by bringing together high-quality academics, health care, counseling, support and more right on-site at the school. It’s a team effort.

The center is open Monday and Wednesday from 1 p.m.-4 p.m. and Tuesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. – Noon.

You can drop off donations at the center if you would like to donate clothes, shoes, school supplies, food, and/or hygiene products.

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