By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

Given the wide range of difficult conversations a teacher can have with a student, the most difficult might be the ones in which a student asks a teacher if they have anything to eat.

“The needs of our students are changing,” said Kim Pittsley, a counselor at McNary High School. “About 40 percent of our students are on free or reduced lunch plans and that’s not what people expect. The need is here.”

McNary is typically viewed as one of the more affluent schools in the Salem-Keizer School District.

Earlier this month, McNary and the Keizer Network of Women (KNOW), a subgroup of the Keizer Chamber of Commerce, unveiled the McNary Kloset. KNOW members have committed to an ongoing campaign to collect items for underprivileged students with donation barrels at Willamette Valley Bank and Keizer Chamber of Commerce office in Keizer Station.

The Kloset started with KNOW member Audrey Butler asking Pittsley whether the school could use some McNary-branded clothing left over from a previous event. Pittsley said she could. That query led to a larger effort both at the school and within KNOW.

“Audrey asked if we could organize a clothing drive and I said we should make it part of the (ongoing) KNOW efforts,” said Stephanie Wittman, the current KNOW president and a sales and marketing representative with ServiceMaster of Salem.

At McNary, Assistant Principal Rhonda Rhodes set out to find a space to house a larger collection of items.

Simply having a space to house the Kloset represented a dramatic shift for the better, said Pittsley, who is still stunned with how quickly everything came together.

“Since the beginning of the school year, about half my office had been filled with clothing donated for students. It’s also taken pressure off the teachers who had taken to having food and snacks in their classroom,” Pittsley said.

Given that asking for assistance isn’t easy, Pittsley said the Kloset is operated as a private shopping experience. Struggling students can ask any trusted adult in the building to assist them with gaining access and Pittsley will call them down during the school day to “shop.”

“I have brand new backpacks in the store they can use to carry what they need. Students who need the help never leave looking like they’ve (been to the Kloset),” Pittsley said.

New and gently-used clothing (particularly items suitable for school and jobs) of all types is appreciated. The store also tries to have on-hand non-perishable food items that students can either eat during school or go home and prepare, like macaroni and cheese. Personal hygiene items, including feminine hygiene products, and staples like underwear are also needed.

In addition to donations coming in from the community, Pittsley said she’s already seen an increase in staff donations, too.

KNOW has a roster of volunteers who commit to checking the donation barrels once a week and getting the items to the school.

“Keizer comes together when they need to. Once the need is known, it’s just amazing how it keeps going,” Pittsley said. “I think it’s important that the community and McNary are working together and helping the students in need.”