The clothing donations at Clothes to Kids are so nice even the teens who volunteer there say they wouldn't mind wearing them.
The nonprofit is gearing up for its eighth back-to-school season and its first with two stores, where kids whose families can't afford new clothes can "shop" for a free wardrobe.
More families need help now than ever before, development director Fran Goodwin said.
"We could tell last year that the need had gone way up," she said. "We're at the same level of need, if not higher, this year."
The second half of the year is always the busiest. It begins with back-to-school season and continues through the holidays.
Last year, the Clearwater store gave out 8,740 wardrobes to students in low-income families throughout the county. With the St. Petersburg store that opened in December, the charity estimates it will give out twice as many this year.
A wardrobe consists of five pairs of underwear and socks, four bottoms, five tops, a dress or skirt for girls, a pair of shoes and a jacket. Each student can shop for up to two wardrobes a year.
Students and their families are recommended to the store. Then they set up an appointment to come and shop. Depending on the child's age, they are either eagerly anticipating the visit or dreading it, Goodwin said. Teens are almost universally wary.
"The ones that come in for the first time are nervous and embarrassed," said Kelly Twiss, a Seminole resident who volunteers at the St. Petersburg store. "Then they start shopping and trying on clothes, and they just can't believe how lucky they are.
"They feel so good when they leave here."
With help from Macy's, the stores are set up like department stores with brightly colored walls and dressing rooms.
Goodwin remembers one teen in particular who was very reluctant to shop at first.
"She walked in the door and everything changed," she said, adding the girl returned later to volunteer.
The main goal is to provide students with new clothes they wouldn't otherwise have. But Clothes to Kids also emphasizes the shopping experience.
"Clients get the red carpet treatment here," Goodwin said. "We're better than Nordstrom's in customer service."
Sara Gregory can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or firstname.lastname@example.org.