In 2009, Anne-Marie Bisson read a newspaper article about homeless teens attending Lowell High School.
“They woke up outside and cold, then went to school trying to fit in,” Bisson said. “I lived in Lowell my whole life and was devastated to read what was going on in the city.”
She began collecting clothes to donate to the high school.
In March 2010, Bisson’s daughter, Catie, a 20-year-old student at Bridgewater State University, died of a connective tissue disorder she had battled her entire life.
Catie graduated from Lowell High, and the school suggested creating a scholarship in her name.
“I asked if they instead could give space, an unused classroom, where students could go and get clothes and toiletries,” Bisson said.
She named it Catie’s Closet.
“We sought to honor her memory by helping kids succeed in school,” Bisson said, adding her daughter valued the importance of education.
After the closet was established in 2010, Bisson got requests from other schools. Today, there are Catie’s Closets in 31 schools, most in Lowell.
At the nonprofit’s collection center in Dracut, donations are accepted the first and third Saturdays of each month.
Volunteers sort, clean, size, and fold or hang the clothes, which are distributed to the schools. “Nothing goes on our shelves unless it meets our standards,” said Bisson, including being “a style kids are wearing today.”
“The whole idea is for them to feel like their peers and good about themselves, and want to go to school,” she said.
In elementary through high schools, Catie’s Closet is set up like a store; items stacked on shelves or hanging, and bins of toiletries.
“When students are identified as having a need, a trusted person takes them to Catie’s Closet and they get what they need. It could be socks and underwear to a week’s worth of clothes, and the items are theirs to keep,” Bisson said.
“At first we were worried it would be more of a stigma than a help, but that hasn’t been the case.”
Bisson related one incident in which a teacher complimented a student and the girl replied, “Head-to-toe Catie’s Closet.”
“She was proud of the way she looked, and it wasn’t a problem she went to Catie’s Closet.”
Bisson, of Tyngsborough, is vice president of financial education at Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union and president of the board of Catie’s Closet.
“If I walk into the distribution center and am the only one there and turn on the light and look around, I get this overwhelming feeling,” Bisson said. “I know Catie thinks this is the coolest thing in the world. She definitely is guiding it.”Wendy Killeen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.