‘Unprecedented’ demand for school uniforms

A yearly school uniform drive is experiencing unprecedented demand from needy families, who have come to dread the end of summer.

“We started getting calls for support after May 24, which is unheard of,” said charity head Gina Spence, whose Each One Reach One Back-To-School programme is in now its fifth year.

“One lady lost her husband to cancer last year and was made redundant. Unable to pay her mortgage, she lost her home as well.

“She said her children missed a lot of school, and she is not sure if they will be ready for this term.”

Residents have been generous, but with needs running high she is “just asking people to give whatever they can afford”.

One mother-of-four, wheelchair-bound by illness, said she depended on the initiative, but also returned all wearable items to pass on the favour.

“It’s getting harder. A lot of people don’t have work, and what goes on with the poor side of the community doesn’t matter outside.”

Three of her children attend school. Her daughter just began high school, another starts primary school next year.

“Shoes cost $80, sneakers for PE cost $80 at least. Three pairs of shorts for my son cost $25 each, three shirts are $20 each. There’s the PE kit, tracksuits, ties. There’s the winter uniform, with a blazer. If you don’t have the proper uniform, they send your child back home.”

Asking not to be named, she said that asking “you feel like you’re losing some of your pride”.

Schools both public and private have their own deals, such as the Berkeley Institute’s arrangement for struggling parents.

“We have a stock of gently used blazers, pants and skirts that can be purchased at a significantly reduced price, which may be free of charge if the need requires,” said principal Phyllis Curtis-Tweed. “We provide additional assistance when necessary.”

But Ms Spence’s initiative is the island’s largest — more than 800 school items were donated last year.

“Every single one of them went,” Ms Spence added, estimating that outfitting a single child for school could easily cost $600. For the average working class person, that’s a lot — they manage the basics and anything else is unachievable.”

Others have pitched in. Veteran footballer and coach Ralph Bean Jr, with business partner Randy Spence, donated 50 free gym bags along with free haircuts.

“We have been in discussions with Gina and her team for a while because we feel that our interests for the community are aligned,” said Mr Bean, who is launching his marking website LaPlaza along with his own “empowerment programme” for young men. The partners “could not pass up the opportunity to support this”.

“Education does not only include academics. Life skills and knowledge of the world are just as important, and that’s what our empowerment programme focuses on.”

Gibbons Company also joined, with its own initiative now in the third year in partnership with Ms Spence.

While CEO Paula Clarke noted that “usually we would have more uniforms by this time of the year”, the company’s deal has been well received. Shoppers who donate “gently used” uniforms get a 20 per cent discount on other school items.

Along with advertising, Gibbons Company donates $150 vouchers for a boy and a girl each. Uniforms and other donations will be distributed next Saturday by Gina Spence Productions, upstairs at the Washington Mall, from 11am to 5pm.

Up through Friday, children can still be nominated via the website www.ginaspenceproductions.com.

The campaign urgently requires funding. Its HSBC account is 002-051928-001, while its Butterfield account is 0601613480018.