At Tucker High School, located about 25 miles from Atlanta, students in need can pick up food, clothing, shoes, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant and more, all for free, at the school’s “giving closet.” The woman behind it is Carolyn Collins, a custodian at the school.
It all started four years ago, when two students — a boy and a girl — knocked on the cafeteria door two hours before school was supposed to start. They asked Collins if they could come in; they were tired of waiting outside.
They said they’d been living in a car with their mother, who had dropped them off early so they could get ready for school in one of the restrooms. Collins felt her eyes fill with hot tears. The teens were hungry, so she hustled up some fruit, milk and cereal.
“I knew that they weren’t the only kids at school who were struggling,” Collins, 54, told The Washington Post. “And I thought, ‘I’m going to do whatever I can to help these kids. High school is hard enough without being homeless.’”
Hours after she let in the homeless siblings, Collins stopped at several dollar stores after work on her six-mile drive home. She spent $200 on snacks, toiletries, socks, underwear, notebooks and pencils, and then stopped by the principal’s office the next morning to let administrators know she planned to help students in need and hoped they would provide her with some space.
Later that day, after she cleaned out an old storage room near the cafeteria, Collins’s giving closet was up and running.
Since 2014, any of the school’s 1,800 students who are in need of items such as food, soap, school supplies, book bags, clothes — even prom wear – will quietly mention it to Collins and she’ll open the closet. They can take what they need.
“She has such a giving heart, she’s a beacon of light for every kid in need,” said Eric Parker, 42, principal of Tucker High School.
The school has many students living in poverty, Parker said, with about 10 to 15 kids who are homeless at any given time.
“If a student needs something and it’s not in the closet, Ms. Collins will go out of her way to get it or find somebody else who can,” Parker said. “Her commitment to our kids is heartwarming. Whatever problem they might be having in their lives, they know they can trust her to listen and help.”
Between her duties of mopping, sweeping and polishing, Collins said she always makes time to stock the closet and reach out to students. She tries to help keep the kids afloat, she said.
Collins doesn’t like to talk about the terrible phone call that she and her husband received six years ago, one week before Thanksgiving. While visiting a friend, their grown son was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was killed during a home invasion robbery, she said. She misses him every single day.
“I want to give kids what they need so that nobody has to go out and steal from anyone,” said Collins, who has worked at the school for eight years. “I don’t want any other parent to have to go through what I did and lose a child at a young age for no reason.”
Collins estimates she has helped about 150 students through the giving closet, spending about a few hundred dollars each month. Many of the items are now donated by teachers, other students and people who live in the neighborhood.
Kennedy Carroll, now 21 and a sophomore at Savannah State University, was going through a rough time when he attended Tucker High. He and his mom became homeless and had to move in with a relative that Carroll didn’t get along with, and he lived by himself in his mother’s car for several months until a classmate’s family took him in. He calls Collins his “angel”: “I love her with all my heart,” he said.
“Ms. Collins took me aside a couple of times and made sure that I was doing okay and asked me what I needed,” said Carroll. “And I basically told her, ‘everything.’ I didn’t have clothes or good shoes or food, or even a toothbrush. She gave me all of that and more.”
Collins remembered she even gave him a stylish leather jacket when he needed a new coat, and she regularly filled his book bag with snacks when she sensed he wasn’t eating enough.
“I always knew that Ms. Collins cared,” said Carroll, who was on the track team and often showered at school. “And she gave me hope to keep going. I learned that if I could conquer being homeless, that I could conquer anything. Because of her generosity, I didn’t give up. I’ll remember how good she was to me for the rest of my life.”
Students such as Carroll who return a year or two later to say ‘thank you’ make the long days of cleaning floors, scrubbing toilets and emptying trash cans worthwhile, said Collins, who said she dreams of one day opening similar closets in other high schools.