It all started when Tammy Koleski received a call from her sister Pam, who had found a heap of well-made shirts at a thrift store in the colors of one of the local schools. “She calls me and says she’s found a bunch of these really nice shirts—the kind you get at Dick’s Sporting Goods for around $50—only these are marked down to 75 cents,” says Koleski, ABR, an agent with Howard Hanna Real Estate Services in Elyria, Ohio.
The next day, Koleski’s sister called again. This time, she found a disposable version of the game Chutes and Ladders for 25 cents.
Koleski took the finds to the school, and the administrators were thrilled. “After that, my sister found a great price on cleats, so I told her to pick up 50 pairs,” Koleski says. “Then, it was fidget toys. And then, all of a sudden, I had a nonprofit donating all these items to area schools.”
After months of Koleski and her sister securing items at a deep discount thanks to Pam’s bargain shopping expertise, Koleski started Wee Care Closet, a nonprofit dedicated to providing a wide range of essentials and extras to area schools. Items range from school supplies and backpacks to clothing, sports items and fidget toys for neurodivergent children.
Koleski lives in Lorain County in Ohio, where a large number of area schools have Title 1 designation, meaning a large percentage of the students are on free or reduced lunch. The county, which is responsible for the education of 33,000 children—over three-quarters of whom are non-White—is riddled with poverty. Many residents can’t afford the basic necessities for schoolchildren, let alone items for extracurricular activities.
“At one of my schools, there was a nonverbal 8-year-old who had an aide with him at school,” Koleski says. “The aide knew something was wrong because the child looked upset, and the aide asked the principal to come down. They gained consent from the child to figure out what was wrong, and it turned out that he had been sent to school with a metal coat hanger wrapped around his waist to keep his pants up because he didn’t have a belt. It was digging into his skin.”
Luckily, the school had plenty of extra belts on hand, which Koleski had dropped off two days prior. At that particular school, the principal took an unused theater space in the building and turned it into a closet. The space is filled to the brim with all kinds of items the students might need. The principal was able to give the child a new belt that fit appropriately.
“The child started clapping and smiling, and the aide and principal were clapping and crying with joy. And of course, I was too when they told me this story,” Koleski recalls.
Stories like these are endless, Koleski says. One 10-year-old child’s shoes literally fell apart in class. He was able to go to the closet at his school and obtain two new pairs of shoes and socks. He’d never had a new pair of shoes before. A local 22-year-old ended up with custody of three children and no means to provide them with what they needed. Koleski showed up with all the essentials. In a house fire, a family that included four children lost everything. Koleski, her car filled to the roof, showed up and provided them with clothes, shoes, essentials and tablets.
Koleski hopes that all of the schools in Lorain County can establish an on-campus closet so that children have access to what they need. She acknowledges that the schools are on the front lines. “The teachers are the first to know what these kids and their families need, and they don’t have the money to spend on these things, so our goal is to make it so that they can just walk a student down the hall to the closet to find what they need.”
Koleski independently funds Wee Care Closet through her own personal contributions. She and her sister’s homes function as storage for the items schools don’t have space to house. Koleski says she has received a few small grants in recent months. Her hope is that word spreads and more community contributions come in.“I would love for our county’s schools to be so full that they’re calling me and telling me that they need to have some stuff picked up,” she says. “Then, we could spread this into the next county’s schools and help their kids in need.”