Arizona Giving and Leading: Back to School Clothing Drive

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Karl Gentles, Executive Director of “Back to School Clothing Drive”, talks about the organization’s efforts to provide new school clothes and school supplies to children in need.

Ted Simons: On tonight's edition of Arizona Giving and Leading, we look at a program that helps thousands of Arizona students in need head back to school with clothes and books. Here to tell us about the back-to-school clothing drive is the organization's executive director, Karl Gentles. Thanks for joining us.

Karl Gentles: Thank you, Ted.

Ted Simons: Back-to-school clothing drive, new clothes, new beginnings.
Karl Gentles: The organization has been around for 45 years. We provide new uniforms and backpacks and school supplies for kids from Title I schools, which are basically high poverty schools. If you remember your first day of school, and your viewers remember, having a cool backpack and new clothes and all that -- that's really not what it's like for the kids that we serve. We come in and provide new clothes and school outfits for kids that truly need one.

Ted Simons: What is a Title I school?

Karl Gentles: It's basically a school in a low-income, high-poverty community. And so basically those kids are all on free or reduced lunch programs. Frankly a lot of those kids can't afford school supplies or uniforms.

Ted Simons: How are these kids eligible for the program? How are they selected? How are the schools selected?

Karl Gentles: Schools are K-6, all designated as title I public elementary schools. We don't select the kids. We actually allocate a number of slots to the schools and we let the schools choose the children. Schools choose the children, bring them down to the big event, and they benefit.

Ted Simons: Looks like a lot of kids down there, a lot of books and clothes and socks, backpacks, the whole nine yards?

Karl Gentles: Everything a kid needs to prepare for the first day of school. That's what we do. We try to make sure we eliminate those barriers to learning, help increase their self-esteem and self-confidence. They all want to look great, I had a Batman backpack when I was growing up. That first day of school and beyond is really, really important. That's what we do.

Ted Simons: How many items of clothing would the average kid get?

Karl Gentles: The average kid gets about $300 in retail value clothes. If you have a family of four or five, that adds up pretty quickly. We offset that by giving about $300 in clothes. We provide about $1.8 million in retail value to the schools around the state.

Ted Simons: Are these clothes purchased from somewhere, donated? New clothes only or used clothes as well?

Karl Gentles: These are all brand-new clothes. We raise money all year around for this event during the summer and we have major donors. Legacy foundation, Bank of America, a number of other organizations and individuals, and they donate. We raise the money for the event. At the end of -- usually the event takes place in June and the kids come down to get the clothes they need, they get about $300 worth of school clothing.

Ted Simons: I'm sure they love those sneakers. What if you do have some slightly used clothes and you want to donate? There is a way to do that?

Karl Gentles: We encourage folks to donate those clothes perhaps to the Salvation Army or another organization. We are an organization that gives our kids brand-new school clothes, brand-new everything. Everything that your kids or my kids wear to school, that's what we give.

Ted Simons: I know you have what's called a safe program. What does this do? Sounds like it's kind of a contingency, if a kid really doesn't have something and they are at school, you make sure they are properly attired and taken care of?

Karl Gentles: Right. We had a program in our organization for about seven, eight, nine years that was giving matching grants to schools. We created an online retail store. When schools came and got their matching grant, they turned around and buy the clothes from us. It's a social enterprise for a social good. It supports the schools and the kids, and all those net proceeds are reinvested back into the back-to-school clothing drive. It ultimately benefits those schools. We're generating revenue and earned income, and it's being reinvested back to help more kids. We're really proud of that program.

Ted Simons: Sounds like a closed system. You get the money, almost like living on a military base.

Karl Gentles: Well, yeah. What happens is, if you have $2500, you can come to us. We'll double that for you. That's our secret sauce. We match that, and you can get double the clothes you can get anyplace else. Right now there are about 199 schools involved. We've grown it from 30 schools just two years ago.

Ted Simons: Sounds like the Safe program that we're talking about, this is something that really isn't done anywhere else in the country, is it?

Karl Gentles: We are the only that we know of doing the matching grant and the online retail store. We are very proud of what we've done, we've created this from a group of 30 schools and it's grown to 199.

Ted Simons: My goodness. I'm guessing it's growing in a variety of ways that are not necessarily positive, in the sense that you've got a lot more kids to deal with than in the past.

Karl Gentles: The need continues to grow, it's heartbreaking. There are other organizations in the Valley that do somewhat similar things. The need is just outpacing the ability to -- to meet all of it. We do our part. Like I said, we distribute $1.8 million in retail clothing and merchandise. We serve -- I'll let you know we serve about 140 schools just in that summer program, and another 199 through our Safe program. We're doing what we can.

Ted Simons: Sounds like you have a lot of volunteers helping. Tell us what these volunteers are doing.

Karl Gentles: We have about 2500 volunteers, very blessed to have that many helping our kids. They help out during the event during the summer. We have some ladies that sew all year-round for the program. Others for instance, organizations like the national cheerleaders league, boys charities,you're your major corporate volunteer programs come down and volunteer, as well. It's a fantastic operation.

Ted Simons: Last question: Give us some time tables as far as dates and things we need to know, events that are occurring.

Karl Gentles: I'll tell you we have a school supply drive going on hosted by Cox Communications. At all the Cox Communication outlets around the Valley you can donate school supplies. Bank of America, I think their supply drive wraps up for us this year, as well. We are now in preparation for next year's event, which is going to be on us pretty quickly again.

Ted Simons: Very good. Thanks for joining us, we appreciate it.

Karl Gentles: Appreciate it.

Karl Gentles:Executive Director, "Back to School Clothing Drive";

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