School clothes available free or at low prices across the area

Published July 30 2015

While back-to-school shopping may be fun for kids, it can be daunting for the parents who have to pay for it all. But there are plenty of stylish shirts and jeans out there for $7 or less, and even free clothes if you don't mind items that are gently used.

Thrift-store finds and hand-me-down clothes have gained popularity in recent years, not just because of their affordability, but also for their individuality and the thrill of the hunt.

Celebrities like Ryan Tedder, who has made more than $2.5 million writing songs for Beyonce, Adele and Adam Lambert, likes to hit thrift stores. So does famous rocker Debbie Harry, a.k.a. Blondie, who says she shopped them when she had to for financial reasons and now because she loves the unique finds.

Elle Varner, a rising star in the R&B world and a favorite of Michelle Obama, cut her first video in 2011 wearing a leather jacket she got for $4 from Goodwill.

"Our stores have lots of back-to-school options for kids and teens," said Goodwill Industries Suncoast spokeswoman Jennifer Fleming. The Gandy Boulevard store, for example, has American Eagle and Hollister jeans in like-new condition for $6.97 a pair. For kids who wear a modified uniform to school, there are khaki shorts for $2.17 and solid polo shirts for $2 to $6.

Goodwill, which has 11 stores in the area, is running a coupon good for 25 percent off one purchase in the Aug. 3 issue of TBT, the Tampa Bay Times' free daily newspaper.

There are also generous programs such as Clothes to Kids in Pinellas County and Oasis Network in Hillsborough that provide clothes at no charge.

Kids from 4 years old to high school seniors can get five outfits, a pair of shoes and new socks and underwear twice a year from Clothes to Kids, which has stores in Clearwater and St. Petersburg. Students referred by a teacher, social worker or religious leader or who are on free or reduced lunch can call and make an appointment to go shopping.

While the pricing is different, Clothes to Kids locations are like most other stores, with mannequins decked out in the latest styles, dressing rooms and organized racks of clothes.

Clothes to Kids was founded in 2003 in Dunedin by former first-grade teacher Jode Eye, who got the idea after learning one of her students dreaded PE because her feet were crammed into her little brother's sneakers.

Eye and co-founder Marie McClung have heard firsthand from teachers and social workers how students' dispositions, attendance and academics improve when they go to school wearing clothes that make them feel like they fit in, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Jacobs.

Volunteers sort through hundreds of donated items every day, organizing them by size and making sure they are free of rips or stains and aren't outdated.

"If we wouldn't put it on our own kids we don't put it out on the floor," Jacobs said. The stores sell clothes that don't make the cut to textile recyclers as their only source of income, making about $10,000 a year.

When long pants are threadbare at the knees, a volunteer converts them to shorts. The stores have a uniform section with solid pants and shirts.

Clothes to Kids says it has provided 2.2 million articles of clothing since it started. The St. Petersburg store recently relocated to 2168 34th Ave. S. The original Dunedin store moved several years ago to 1059 N Hercules Ave. in Clearwater.

Oasis, which stands for Outreach Assisting Students in Schools, works with 140 social workers in the Hillsborough County School District. When a social worker sees a child lacking basic necessities, she or he can go to one of the Oasis facilities and get whatever is needed free of charge.

Founded in 2001 by women who had volunteered in schools and saw the great need for clothes and other necessities, Oasis now has three facilities. Beyond clothes, it offers hygiene items, books, sheets and comforters.

Contact Katherine Snow Smith at [email protected] or (727) 893-8785. Follow @snowsmith.