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V.A.U.L.T.-ing the lives of children

With 67 percent of children who attend Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School on free and reduced lunch, school counselor Kandace Tysinger and dean of students Melissa Zawodny see their needs on a daily basis.

Among those needs are clothing and other toiletries to help children and their families, so the two spearheaded an effort over the past year to create what is now known as the V.A.U.L.T., a discreet room within the school in which children can get clothing and other items they may need without anyone else having to know.

Tysinger said some of the school’s students and families have limited to no access to basic resources in the community.

“By us being the counselor and the dean of students, we do student services — we’re the front line of when something, a crisis takes place,” Tysinger said. “Therefore, when something like this takes place, we have to assess to see how best to assist this student and a lot of students come to school, they don’t have the access to these resources in the community.

“And they come to school, they may be dirty. … They’re having these behaviors in the classroom, but we’re thinking it’s because people may think they don’t know how to behave, but it’s because they may not know where their next meal is coming from.”

The V.A.U.L.T., which stands for Valuing and Uplifting Lives Together, was dedicated Friday in honor of the Mack Benn Jr. family, and a number of people, along with businesses and organizations, came together to outfit the room.

The room, which is set up much like a mini-store, has the purpose of providing free clothing and resources to students who are referred by school personnel, a human service organization, the school or a church. It has a private dressing room built into it so students can try on and change their clothes before going back to class.

Zawodny said they wanted the school community to know about the room and why it was there, but they also want to protect the privacy of each student who will come in to get clothes or other resources. She notes that there are many students at the school who come from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds.

“The biggest thing, especially at this age, is their peer influences of one another,” Zawodny said. “And the reason we wanted to make sure we had a dressing room within this area was that so kids aren’t walking around with piles of clothes from one area to the next. And then they’re able to keep that to themselves. It saves their face.”

Though the idea was a long time in the making, Tysinger and Zawodny said the room for the V.A.U.L.T. only came together over the past three weeks.

All of the items in the V.A.U.L.T., and the labor that went into putting it together, were donated by city businesses and organizations, as well as Mack Benn Jr. staff. They received clothing items including such things as shoes, jackets, shirts, pants, gloves, hats, socks, sweatshirts, towels, undergarments, ties, belts, toiletries and other personal care products.

Zawodny, who used to work at the now-closed Bennett’s Creek Pharmacy as a teen, contacted its owner, Chris Jones, about getting some of the shelves to use in the new room. Schadel Sheet Metal Works built the racks in the back of the V.A.U.L.T. that are used to hang up the clothes, while Kings and Queens of Clean donated personal hygiene and toiletry products and built the changing area. Revival Center donated clothes and will be working on fundraisers with the Beta team at John Yeates Middle School and the Ladies of Distinction to coordinate fundraisers for hygiene supplies, while East End Baptist Church donated clothing, coats, accessories and other supplies.

While this is starting out for students at Mack Benn Jr., the goal is to open the V.A.U.L.T. up to the community once per month for families to get the resources they need, and Tysinger and Zawodny hope the idea spreads to other schools.

“It’s not just for the students,” Zawodny said. “We wanted to provide things that, when we know there is a family that is in need, to make sure we have travel-sized bottles of things for their families.”

Now, the school has the resources to take care of children when school is out for an extended period, such as for winter and spring breaks. The school also has a washer and dryer to wash clothes as needed. It’s something Zawodny does every Tuesday after school, after the cafeteria staff is done for the day.

“Our children do want to dress nice,” Zawodny said. “They just don’t have the means. They’re our kids. That’s the biggest thing — her and I, we look at these children as our babies. They’re our students. It is our Mack Benn family.”

Said Tysinger: “Both of us are from Suffolk, so we take it a little more personal, because these are our babies. And this is our community, so if we don’t take care of our own, who’s going to take care of our babies?”