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Care Closet Helps Needy Teens
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Patty Shelton, left, of the Oakdale Ministerial Association hands a bin of cold weather clothing to OHS Care Closet coordinator Dana Hernandez, right, while OHS counselor and Care Closet founder John Arsenio observes. - photo by Dawn M. Henley/The Leader

The lives of scores of underprivileged students are affected for the better because of the creation of a small, inconspicuous room at Oakdale High School. Actually, it’s what’s inside the room that has really made the difference: deodorant, shampoo and conditioner, ramen noodles, bottled water, paper and pencils, binders, clothing.

The basics stock what’s known as the Care Closet.

OHS counselor John Arsenio started the Care Closet when he first came to the high school during the 2001-2002 year. Initially, he worked with now-retired OHS Principal Rick Jones for several months to find a private area that would be the right place to serve as the Care Closet. Arsenio was previously employed at Escalon High School and credits the idea to a fellow counselor there.

“We collect school supplies, hygiene products, clothes, especially P.E. clothing, and non-perishable food items,” he reported. “The Care Closet is great around the holidays for those families who are experiencing a hard time; however, it is a great resource year round for our needy students.”

Currently, the Care Closet organizers are working with Patti Shelton who coordinates with local churches through the Oakdale Ministerial Association to help keep the closet stocked. Quarterly, a few of the churches donate what has been collected in special bins for the students.

“This has been a great help to our program to continue to support our students’ needs,” Arsenio said.

Shelton explained that a few years ago, while her son attended OHS, her family took in one of her son’s friends who was homeless. She said she then learned that there were a number of homeless students.

She discussed the problem with the pastor at her church, Sierra Foothills Community Church, and they discovered that the need was greater than what the church alone could provide, so they went to the ministerial association to gain help from other local churches.

Shelton reported that they’re trying to help these students gain a foothold in order to graduate. She added that these students need basic school supplies in order to do their schoolwork and they also need P.E. clothes because participation in P.E. is a requirement for graduation.

“Whatever we can do to get these kids their diplomas… it’s not their fault they’re in this situation,” Shelton said, adding that many employers won’t hire people without high school diplomas.

Arsenio said that even though the school can provide P.E. clothes, some of these students are often too embarrassed or ashamed to admit that they can’t afford them. The Care Closet offers a more private alternative. The underprivileged students can go to OHS counseling office secretary Dana Hernandez, who helps facilitate the Care Closet activities, and she gets the students what they need. She said that while there may be a case of bottled water or a case of pudding, for example, students will only take two or three bottled waters or a small pack of pudding, nothing more.

“The kids are real honest and take just what they need,” she said.

Arsenio and Hernandez both said that this year they are seeing a greater number of students who are utilizing the Care Closet and using it more frequently. Arsenio noted that there are some students who are in homes that are combined, multi-generation households, while others are homeless. Although she doesn’t “track” the students served through the Care Closet, Hernandez estimated that there are at least 40-50 students at the high school per year who benefit, if not more.

To keep up with the demands of the Care Closet, Hernandez has two student aides who help her with inventory and stocking, letting her know when supplies are low. She said that the items most frequently used and needed are deodorant, shampoo and conditioner. She added that teenagers especially need deodorant and sometimes the students may not always have access to a shower, she also said that they can’t afford conditioner but it really makes a difference.

Hernandez said that other important items that are currently needed are sweatshirts and sweatpants for P.E. for boys and girls, as well as school supplies and food. Winter coats are also needed.

Other students in the district have contributed to the Care Closet, too. Arsenio said his wife, Christine, a kindergarten teacher at Magnolia Elementary School, had her class do a special collection around this time last year, which was “a great learning experience for her class of five-year-olds.” He added that the OHS volleyball team has helped out over the last few years, as well as school staff members and clubs. Linda Kraus, a third grade teacher at Sierra View Elementary has had her students assemble hygiene kits for the Modesto Gospel Mission for a number of years. This year, however, her class is giving all of the hygiene items collected to the OHS Care Closet to benefit the homeless and needy students.

Travel-size or hotel hygiene items are attractive because the students can easily put them in their backpacks.

For individuals or businesses who wish to donate to the OHS Care Closet, contact Dana Hernandez directly in the OHS counseling office at 848-7111. For churches interested in hosting bins and donating to the cause, contact the Oakdale Ministerial Association.