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Students rely on Gulf Middle’s help for clothes, supplies

‘It’s vital that the community supports the local public schools,’ volunteer parent Terri Funseth says.

NEW PORT RICHEY — Sixth-graders Cheyenne Frasier and Jaylize Ramos handed over their passes as they entered the door down the corridor from the cafeteria.

They really weren’t looking for anything in particular. But the girls so enjoy Gulf Middle School’s Treasure Chest — a classroom filled with shoes, clothing, school supplies and more — that they try to get there whenever they can.

“When I came to visit for the first time, it was like, ‘Wow, we have a built-in convenience store,’" Cheyenne said. “And all this is free.”

Sometimes, the shop can offer a lifeline.

“My hair is so thick I needed more conditioner,” Jaylize recalled. “So I came in here and got some.”

Items as simple as shoes that fit and pencils to write with seem mundane in many school communities. But educators have found that if these needs aren’t met, kids often can’t get down to the business at hand — learning.

At Gulf Middle, where just under 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, these details matter. This is a community where families often come to the schools after hours to plug their cell phones into exterior outlets, because they can’t necessarily afford the utilities at home.

Yet when parent coordinator Liz Kuhns arrived on campus four years ago, the school’s efforts to support these basics were lacking.

“We had clothing for the kids in a dark, smelly room,” Kuhns said, using terms like “unattractive” and “demoralizing” as further description. “Who wants to go into that room when they need something?”

The school had to get rid of the stigma attached to asking for assistance, she suggested. Students didn’t need to be embarrassed or discouraged. They deserved to find a welcoming spot that helped them through the day.

So the Treasure Chest was born.

Some schools keep extra clothing in a closet, with students able to ask for an item if they’ve lost one, outgrown it or even spilled something on it. Some provide outfits for special events, like the prom or a school performance. A couple have laundry machines to help children remain presentable in classes, as well.

For the most part, though, those efforts are limited to certain dates or available on request.

Not at Gulf Middle.

Its bright, classroom-sized Treasure Chest is open daily, with a steady stream of community volunteers. Everyone from civic activists to School Board members spend hours each week collecting and sorting donations, and helping students find what they’re looking for.

“It’s absolutely wonderful,” said parent Terri Funseth, as she straightened items on the shelves. “The students see it as a reason to come to school and that they’re valued. We hear it from them.”

Parent Nikki Picorella called the project “really cool,” saying she has heard the students talk about what they need and how this initiative fills the bill in many ways.

“I wish all the schools would have this,” she said. “I think all of them would benefit dramatically.”

Gulf Middle seventh-graders Kendall Geraci and Gaby Perez look for matching T-shirts in the school's Treasure Chest, where everything is free for students who need it. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times Staff ]

Seventh-graders Kendall Geraci and Gaby Perez shared that view.

They’ve heard schoolmates get picked on for their clothes, and seen them get in trouble because their clothing doesn’t meet dress code. They know kids without shoes and those who just need something presentable.

“Last year, I was going to try out for something. I didn’t have nice stuff,” Gaby recalled. “I came down here to get something.”

“All schools should have it,” Kendall said. “What if their parents just don’t have enough money?”

Gulf Middle’s Treasure Chest has won awards for its service. Kuhns said the school works to do more to help the students and their families, so that when classes begin, the focus can remain on education.

Among the school’s other initiatives are weekly dinners that feature guest speakers on issues of concern, such as bullying and tobacco-use prevention, free after-school programs that include snacks, and tutoring with International Baccalaureate students from nearby Gulf High.

“We support our families in a lot of different ways,” Kuhns said. “Our goal is to ensure that every child comes to school every day, ready to learn.”

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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