Back To School Fashion Workshop

August 29, 2015

Volunteers arrived promptly thru the worst wind and rainstorms our area has seen in a long time.  Many of the volunteers were preparing for their first time in one of The F-factor’s signature programs a Back to School Fashion Workshop.

The volunteers had so much to anticipate but even more so the 14 boys who would soon fill the workshop space.

Like the weather that Saturday afternoon a storm of uncertainty, insecurity, and fear is present in the lives of foster children.  I saw this in their eyes when I met the boys one week prior to register them for the workshop. They were mostly reserved and not interested in speaking with me.  I fit the “profile”: adult, stranger, introduced as a person who wants to “talk” with them.

In foster care there are always new faces, people who want to talk, taking notes, evaluating, ready to make decisions for their lives.  The kids have not had it easy and there is an enormous lack of comfort in “the system."  At this time I walk into their lives, sit down with them for ten minutes and hope they accept me.

When registering them for the workshop, I introduce myself and invite them to join me in the Back to School Fashion Workshop.  I explain this an event where they can pick new clothes and shoes they like the best.  I assure them this is all about clothes, theirs to keep, and fun science experiments to get them ready for the first day of school.  A wave of relief crosses their face, most of them would nod their head yes and then be willing to make eye contact.  I gently begin to inquire about what they want to wear? Ask their favorite colors? What do they enjoy doing while hanging out with their friends?

A young boy said “Anything like Justin Bieber”   …That was his answer to every question I asked!

Instantly I knew one of my tasks in the coming week was to find gold high top sneakers… Just like the Biebs.  Some boys wanted to dress like hunters, basketball players, dancers, they shared their favorite sports teams and their love for Legos.

The boys anxiously await day of the workshop.  We settle their excitement by telling them it is  something to look forward to, they can hardly wait!  Just talking to them about clothes and shoes and what they like to do, they are jumping at the opportunity to be in the workshop. 

The workshop day is here! Over $12,000 of inventory lined the room; racks of hand picked to suit their style based on their profiles from our earlier meeting.  They kids will choose two complete outfits, 3 accessories, in addition a package of plain white T’s, one pair of pajamas, and two duffle bags.

The workshop begins!

I greet each of the boys by first name at the door, we shake hands.  Their ages range from a young seven years old to thirteen.  I introduced “my friends” (fashionably dressed volunteers) their eyes are in a gaze taking in the room that has been transformed with Zumiez posters on the wall, hoodies, fall jackets, rain coats, jeans, and shirts hung perfectly on hangers as they would in the stores. Seventy T-shirts in all colors and sizes were perfectly folded and displayed across two tables. A selection of more than fifty shoes, wallets, watches, and hats displayed for the boys to choose.

We form a large circle around the room and jump into ice-breakers and introductions. Immediately following the boys break off into stations to find clothing to suit their personal style and inspire them to look and feel their best.  Volunteers act as personal shoppers organically pairing with the boys making suggestions of what items to mix and match.  The vibe was energetic and extremely positive.

This is what the day was about… allowing the boys to choose.
What shirts and jeans they wanted.
Their choice in color of socks.
If they want a wallet that was blue, black, or brown.
Nike or Addidas shoes.
A snap back or fitted hat.

Foster care aside.
Therapy aside.

It was their space to express themselves to be excited about how they dress and showing off sweet dance moves in their new shoes. 
Have something to hold and the first to own it.
Empowered to make choices.
Empowered by Fashion.

After the boys picked their clothes, they built rockets to blast fifty feet in the air from a launcher and another group practiced science experiments erupting volcanoes. 

Each kid had the opportunity to stand in front of the photo backdrop in new threads to have their school photo taken.  A small chalkboard held by the boys illustrated what they want to be when they grow-up "Basketball Player", "Dancer",  "Astronaut", "The next President Obama."
I love seeing the ambition!

Near the end of the workshop and with this much excitement we were sure to have an appetite. One of our excellent volunteers grabbed 30 cheeseburgers and fries for the boys to share a meal.  The Ryther staff and my friends sat with the boys we had casual conversation while munching on food.
The workshop is complete.  The boys return to their cottages.  We return the remaining clothes.

What started as a harsh and stormy day ended with the clouds parting, the winds calmed, and the sun shined on each of their faces.

I’m confident it was a good experience.  We watched the kids share perfect finds with their peers. Dance in their new sneakers.
Smile from ear to ear.
They ooh'ed and ahh'ed at the rockets!

They had a place to be themselves, to be kids.
Feel safe.
Be unconditionally accepted.
Be excited about a watch or pair of shoes.
Even the chance to dress like Justin Bieber.

They were kids, exactly as they were supposed to be.  Feeling nurtured, excited about science, and surrounded by people who care about them. 

We have to ask ourselves:

How will they treat society and other men?

How will they treat their wives?

How will they treat themselves?

My hope is they feel confident and cared for every time they put on their new shoes.

I hope these young boys, to be men one day, always have a shirt on their back.

I hope they walk with strength and ambition.

I hope they look back on this day and think of the community that is here to support them, and the thousands of smiles we shared! 
~ Ellen Young, Founder

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”  
-Frederick Douglass