Back to basics: Cape Breton schools offer clothing, food for students

When teacher Erin McPhee saw students at her middle school in Sydney, N.S., singled out for dirty and tattered clothing, she decided to do something about it.

With the help of other staff, McPhee set up a "comfort closet" inside an unused office at Sherwood Park Education Centre.

Students can help themselves to clothing, toiletries or snacks — no questions asked.

"I was seeing children that were very upset and lacking the basic needs, " McPhee told CBC Cape Breton's Information Morning.

She said some students were wearing the same clothes every day. Others couldn't participate in gym class because they didn't have the proper footwear.   

Cape Breton has one of the highest child poverty rates in Canada.

Brittany Wentzell/CBC

McPhee said she had heard of similar comfort closets elsewhere and thought her school would be an ideal location.

"Anything your child would need to be warm and fed for the day and to be able to function in the classroom — we try to provide all those needs," she said.

McPhee said between 30 and 40 students in the school of about 300 use the closet regularly. She supplies them with a bag and usually leaves them alone in the closet to gather items, to spare them any embarrassment.

Dr. T.L. Sullivan School in Florence, N.S., has a similar supply of hygiene products and clothing in a "caring closet."

Parent Lisa Bond set it up last year after her son, Zavier, 13, told her that kids were asking him if they could borrow his deodorant or share his lunch.

"It's fantastic," said Bond, adding that many teachers in the middle school kept spare food and toiletries in their desks for students in the past.      She said the closet allows students to choose what they need, without having to tell anyone.

Submitted by Lisa Bond

Bond said the closet at T. L. Sullivan also includes a hot lunch program, which allows students to get vouchers for the cafeteria.

"It's just about everything a kid could need," said Bond.

McPhee said she's noticed a reduction in bullying at Sherwood Park since the closet opened.

"We try not to let anyone stand out," she said.

"It's a place where they can come and get whatever they need to fit in. We know that they're dressed and they're clean and they're fed and they're warm and they just fit in like everybody else."

Donations of items for the closets at both schools come from students and staff, as well as the broader community.