Paterson Public Schools’ efforts to support student wellness received a big lift in November 2022 when it secured a massive donation of 28,500 hygiene products courtesy of the Colgate-Palmolive Co.
Eileen F. Shafer, the district’s superintendent, noted the products, which include toothbrushes, toothpaste, body wash and soap, will make a huge difference. “When students aren’t comfortable with themselves, then they are not going to learn,” she said. “Whether I have a cold, whether my back hurts, whether I experienced some trauma or whether my hair is dirty, all of that relates to a student wellness program as I see it.”
While the donation from Colgate-Palmolive “put a big dent into what we need,” the district needs more, Shafer said. “We are looking to reach out to other big companies,” she said, noting that the biggest challenge is getting feminine products and deodorant. “This is not a one-time deal,” she said. “It has to constantly be restocked.”
The donation from Colgate-Palmolive will help provision “Confidence Closets” that the district began opening in July 2022. “We couldn’t have been happier,” Shafer said of the donation. “We introduced Confidence Closets, and we didn’t want to fall short – we want to make sure we are keeping kids healthy, and we do that by addressing all of their needs. We could not be more grateful to Colgate-Palmolive for stepping up.”
Four Paterson schools recently offered a Confidence Closet – John F. Kennedy High School, Eastside High School, International High School and New Roberto Clemente Middle School. At the closets, students can get a variety of hygiene products. The district hopes to expand the availability of the closets, so they are available at 33 schools.
The Confidence Closet initiative took shape when Shafer reached out to the faith-based community, including Pastor Matt Andersen, executive director of Paterson’s Star of Hope Ministries, according to Paul Brubaker, communications director at Paterson Public Schools.
Serve Our Schools, a coalition of Paterson churches, has been an invaluable resource in helping Paterson muster up the power and logistics to support the Confidence Closet program, including offering warehouse space to store products and collecting and donating products.
“One of the common themes of NJSBA’s Workshop in Atlantic City was how overextended everyone is,” Brubaker said, noting that Shafer saw the need and knew the faith-based community could potentially offer a solution.
“I have always worked with all the pastors, and Paterson has a lot of churches,” Shafer said, noting that the connection came about when she was at a local prayer service. “Things just took off from there,” she said. “I knew when I became superintendent that this is not a job you can do by yourself – you need partners, and I will partner with anyone able to help our kids.”
Shafer noted that she meets with pastors from Serve Our Schools every couple of months and that they are “really interested in the Confidence Closets.” Member churches have placed boxes around their churches and regularly drop off products to help the district, she said.
“We gave them a whole list of products we needed, but they also got the word out about what we needed,” she said. “They have done a great job in partnering with us.”
“Serve our Schools has been a steadfast and reliable partner from the very beginning of this initiative,” Brubaker said. “Pastor Andersen expressed interest in opportunities to help Paterson Public Schools families, and Superintendent Shafer immediately told him of our needs in launching the Confidence Closets. We have been very fortunate that he has been so generous with his time and talents.”
As to how the COVID-19 pandemic affected student wellness, Shafer focused on its economic impact, which has affected families in so many ways.
“So many of our families had to relocate or move in with other family members – they couldn’t afford to pay rent or pay their bills,” she said. Some children lost multiple family members, which caused them to struggle academically and emotionally, she said.
In some cases, families were forced to make difficult decisions. “Pay the rent and bring in food to everyone … or are we going to do the laundry or buy hygiene products – and they tend to be a little expensive,” she said. “Those were difficult decisions they had to make and are still making now – and all of those things tie into wellness. When you are looking at rent and food, hygiene products kind of go to the bottom of the list.”
A Priority Paterson has had wellness top of mind for some time, Shafer said. “Prior to the pandemic, we knew that you need to feel good about yourself,” she said. District staff recognized that in some cases, if a student did not have deodorant in the house, could not wash their hair or their uniform was dirty, they simply did not come to school for fear of being made fun of or bullied, she said.
Recognizing that, schools began allowing students to borrow a clean uniform that they could return at the end of the day. Later, the district installed washers and dryers at John F. Kennedy High School using local budget funds, allowing students to do their laundry immediately before and after school.
“We pay for all the products, so there is no reason not to have a clean uniform,” Shafer said. Now, the district has 12 schools with washers and dryers.
One concern Shafer had about installed laundry facilities was whether students who used them would suffer some kind of stigma. “But the laundry room is the place to be,” she said. “They have music on their computers and do their homework. Two friends go in to do the wash, help each other fold it and then they leave. It’s become the place to go – and the same thing with the Confidence Closets. You aren’t walking around carrying a bar of soap. You put it in your backpack, and no one even knows you have it.”
The district also has staff that make student wellness a priority, including Raquel Amador, a chronic absentee specialist at John F. Kennedy High School, who in the fall of 2021, a few weeks after students returned to in-person instruction, created a spot where female students could get access to feminine hygiene products – a place dubbed “The She Spot.” Through a partnership with Confidence Closets, the spot now offers hygiene products to male students as well.
“What she recognized at Kennedy High School is that girls were coming to her because of all of a sudden they would get their period and did not have the products they needed … and what were they going to do?” Shafer said. “It’s all about identifying a need the student has and putting a solution into place.”
The district will continue to make student wellness a priority, with Confidence Closets being a big part of its efforts, Shafer said. As long as individuals and the business community continue to rally around its efforts, the program is poised to succeed – and students can worry less about hygiene and more about their studies.
You can make a tax-deductible donation to Paterson’s Confidence Closets with a check to The Fund for Paterson Public Schools, 90 Delaware Ave, Paterson, NJ 07503, or at PayPal at @fundforpps. Donations are also accepted by check at Serve Our Schools at Star of Hope Ministries, 34 Broadway, Paterson, N.J. 07505, or online at www.sohm.org/schools.