Families whose budgets barely cover housing and food often find school supplies and clothes are out of reach. Other students are homeless, couch surfing or living in cars.
Enter the Demon Cares Closet, the newly founded source for personal hygiene items as well as supplies and clothes for the one-third of Durango High School students who live at or below the poverty line.
“I didn’t realize how many kids were affected by this, how many were struggling, until I started working here,” said Melinda Wood, secretary to the DHS Counseling Department, who runs the closet program. “Some of them are our highest achieving kids.”
The closet opened three weeks ago, and about 20 students have benefited from it so far.
One story that resonated with Wood was a mother concerned her children were getting into trouble and were involved with the wrong crowd.
“She said last year, they were living in a house, and everything was going well,” Wood said. “Then a variety of things happened, and they lost that. Once she paid for an apartment and the utilities that were required, she had $20 left for the month.”
Her daughter, the mother said, no longer felt that she fit in with her friends because of the change in the family’s fortunes.
“One of the big challenges is that kids are proud,” Wood said, “and they don’t want other kids to know.”
That pride is of concern in other ways.
“Once they hit high school, they no longer want to apply for the free-and-reduced lunch program,” Durango School District 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger said. “We see a huge drop in kids eating in the cafeteria, and I worry kids are going hungry rather than apply.”
Wood said the counseling department often helps those kids in a more behind-the-scenes way with snacks and food, where the source is disguised. The district also has an agreement with the city of Durango to provide trolley passes for kids who need them for basic transportation.
The sensitivity to teens’ feelings is why the Demon Cares Closet is staff-run, not student-run, Wood said.
“They know it’s a safe place, and no one else in school will know,” she said.
What the kids stop by for comes in waves. The most recent student needed a toothbrush and toothpaste.
“It’s what students need at that moment,” Wood said. “When it first came up, we were in a panic to find the basic supplies these kids needed at the beginning of school. Now, it’s getting colder, and we’re looking for sweatshirts and winter coats, warmer clothing.”
She anticipates another run on school supplies at the beginning of the second semester in mid-January.
Students are referred to the closet by teachers or counselors who see the students every day and notice what’s lacking.
“They can take kids out of class and go get them what they need,” Wood said.
The closet is also seeking appropriate attire for job and scholarship interviews.
“We don’t want the lack of appropriate clothes to hinder their future,” she said. “And we also are seeking more formal wear for prom. We’d hate for them not to have that experience.”
Offerings such as the closet are not uncommon these days, as schools often find themselves on the front lines of social work.
“This is something everyone assumed was here,” Wood said. “But we just never got to the point of it happening.”
The program is not currently set up to accept cash, but cash will be needed. Wood said she will be writing grants for funding for items such as shoes, that are not as appropriate as donations.
It’s clear Wood is committed to the Demon Cares Closet for the long haul.
“My theory is that I would rather give up all my free time,” she said, “than have to worry about one kid not coming forward because they’re embarrassed.”