School uniforms are, in part, an effort to diminish economic barriers between students, but when you can’t afford the uniform, the barriers pop back up.
Cue a Nashville mom with a PR background and an affinity for making things easy.
Jami Oakley launched UniCycle last year, a school uniform recycling program now operating in 26 Metro schools. In the first year, Oakley gave out 3,500 pieces of school uniform clothing from her home – more specifically, a spare room over her garage – to students experiencing homelessness and others in need. This year, in the beginning months of school, her program has already given out more than 2,000 polos, khaki pants and shorts, and other Standard School Attire (SSA) items.
“The goal is to make these kids’ lives easier, make them feel confident and feel happy about what they’re wearing, because that changes everything.” Oakley said.
Oakley, who moved to Nashville a little over two years ago, said the idea was sparked by being a mom to her two boys, ages 5 and 8. She saw how fast her kids were cycling through clothing – clothing that had minimal wear and tear – and knew it could go on to another kid in a district where 75 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.
Jami Oakley stands with a volunteer in the emergency closet at West End Middle School in Nashville.
“As soon as you become a mom, you see everything through the eyes of your child. So any pain or suffering or discomfort that any child is going through, your heart just hurts for them,” Oakley said.
She reached out to Catherine Knowles, director of the Homeless Education Program, and asked how she could help serve the thousands of homeless children enrolled in Metro schools. (Last year, Knowles served 3,000 homeless students.) Students in Knowles’ program receive the grant-mandated two navy polos and two pairs of shorts, and Oakley thought recycling “gently used” SSA would get more clothing into the hands of homeless students. She believed giving students a variety of clothing would not only make students feel better about their attire, but would also free up some of Knowles’ money for other services.
“Our UniCycle partnership saves our program both time and money,” Knowles said. “The time saving allows us to serve students more quickly so that’s a huge plus for our students and families.” Knowles this year has already identified 1,480 students in MNPS who meet the federal definition of homelessness. She said 936 of those students requested and received standard school attire, and 155 of those orders were filled by UniCycle.
“This year, most of the kids I have are getting 3-5 outfits,” Oakley said. “And it’s fun stuff: their khaki shorts are perfectly functional and fine, but this is actually what an 8-year-old girl wants to wear. We have all the Old Navy, the Gap, the Lands’ End, all the same stuff that all the other kids are wearing.”
“We found out that the kids liked it and the parents like it. I was preparing my heart for someone to call and complain that now they’re getting used clothing as opposed to the new clothing she (Catherine) was providing. But no one did. Everybody seemed really happy.”
Leaning on her PR roots, Oakley has established a logo, mission statement and newsletter copy that enables schools to effortlessly implement the program. Besides placing donation bins labeled for UniCycle in Metro schools, Oakley also launched “emergency closets” for students in schools to be able to come in and grab clothes as needed.
26 Metro schools now have emergency closets with SSA from UniCycle.
Oakley said, “Maybe they’re not homeless, but they need help. And those kids tend to fall through the crack; there’s not assistance for them. We needed to make sure the kids in this school are taken care of first. So (the) closet remains full, and the excess will go to Catherine.”
As the program has expanded through Metro schools, volunteers and teachers are helping to staff the closets and sort through donations. The closets vary by school, but most are limited to a corner or a small spare room. There are no forms for parents or students to fill out when requesting clothes; they’re free to grab items as needed.
“I don’t want this to be hard. I don’t want to call and say, ‘How many clothes did you give away today?’ I want it to be easy for everybody,” Oakley said.
Earlier this year, Oakley was able to set up a “pop up shop” for students living at the Nashville Rescue Mission. After Knowles registered the students for school, the kids were able to go through Oakley’s inventory and select clothes that they liked.
“The on-site registration and uniform distribution afforded mothers and their kids to have more of a typical ‘back to school shopping experience,’” Knowles said. “...The children got to make their own decisions about what they wanted for their first day of school outfits. The volunteers and shelter staff did a great job of making each child feel special and valued and I think that went a long way in promoting excitement about the start of the school year for most of the children.
“When you have a limited number of personal belongings and you rely on donations to meet your needs, having a choice about what you receive is really empowering.”
Looking ahead, Oakley hopes to open a UniCycle headquarters outside of her home. She believes the site would enable more donations to come in and make it easier to bring on donors to partner with the program. She also hopes to continue expanding the program throughout Nashville and beyond, giving more parents the opportunity to declutter and clothe students in need.
“That’s exactly why this works, because kids are growing. So turn it in,” she said. “When you have a big family … you just pass (down the clothes). I think it’s nice if we can de-stigmatize that. That’s how life works, and why can’t schools just work that same way?”
“It makes you feel good and productive. I tell people when they give things, ‘That skirt will probably be on a child’s body in the next 10 days.’”
For more information, contact Jami Oakley at (713) 301-7815 or Unicycle.email@example.com. Information can also be found on UniCycle’s Facebook page (@UniCycle.Nashville).