DeKalb custodian teaches students how to care

Small ‘Giving Closet’ came from a big heart

In a small storage room off the Tucker High School cafeteria, custodian Carolyn Collins is changing lives.

“The Giving Closet,” as it has been named, is stuffed with shampoos and school supplies, snacks and shoes. Noticing significant homelessness among students, Collins — who has worked for the school eight years — said she started collecting items as a way to give students needed supplies, clothes and toiletries they could not otherwise afford.

“I help them with … little things we take for granted,” she said at the school Wednesday.

She got the idea for the closet on Sept. 24, 2014, when someone began banging on a cafeteria door at the school around 6 a.m. She asked the students, a boy and a girl, what they were doing at school so early. The girl told Collins they were homeless and living in a car, with a parent and two other siblings.

She collected snacks to last them until lunchtime and began developing the plan to make items available for students. At first, it was snacks — granola bars, bottled water and Gatorade — but she expanded her reach upon hearing of other needs from students, teachers and counselors.

“I had heard about the closet before I got here,” said Principal Eric Parker, who began at the school in March. “It’s the genuine interest Mrs. Collins has for the well-being of the students. Hearing about it was one thing, but seeing the relationships she has with the students and the families and how she has touched them and been a blessing to them …

“The academic piece is our focus, but we can’t focus on that if some of the social emotional needs and other human needs of our students aren’t being met. I think that’s where Mrs. Collins has made the biggest difference.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 37,791 of Georgia’s students, about 2.1 percent, had experienced periods of homelessness during the 2014-2015 school year. Housing instability hurts student achievement, contributing to high absenteeism and students failing courses and dropping out. DeKalb County School District officials have said they established bus stops for students living in shelters after experiencing homelessness, to allow continuity in their schooling experience.

The storage room, with cinder blocks painted a pale yellow, is about 15 feet wide and six feet deep. Shelves are stocked with deodorant, shaving cream, canned goods, wireless notebooks, binders, sanitizer, paper towels, Cup ‘O Noodles, feminine products, clothes and shoes. Several oversized black trash bags are filled with clothing from a recent donation. Collins, known as Mama Carolyn, Auntie Carolyn and other familial monikers given by the students, said some students will come by the closet and ask for supplies. Others will contact her discreetly and she will pass along the supplies through teachers and counselors.

Collins’ generosity recently caught the attention of Comedian and talk show host Steve Harvey, who highlighted her story on his television show and got sponsor Sam’s Club to give $5,000 for supplies. Harvey and his wife, Marjorie, chipped in another $10,000 for supplies.

“When you have a person like this woman here who reaches out and reaches back and reaches down to lift up, that’s really what the fiber of this country is about,” Harvey said to Collins on his show before telling her Sam’s Club was giving her $5,000 for a personal shopping spree.

Her giving doesn’t stop with students. Recently, she learned the family of one of her students was living in a vacant building. Collins bought blankets, pillows, clothes and food for them.

“I just wanted to make them feel comfortable where they were,” she said.

The mother kept in touch after the donation, even alerting Collins when they finally got an apartment.

“I told them if they still needed anything, just tell me,” she said. “I’ll try to get it for them.”

If you know someone like Carolyn Collins who deserves special recognition, you can nominate them by Sunday, Sept. 9, to receive an AJC Hometown Hero award here.

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