By Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

High school students at Holy Family have formed a ministry that is tailor-made for teens. With the guidance of youth minister Jeff Mingin, parent volunteer Stacey Lawlor, and social worker Nancy Reckling, the students have created a clothing closet designed especially for youth in need.

Stacey Lawlor and Curtis Morgan, boxing up winter clothes.

Throughout the year, parish teens collect gently used clothing to stock their “shop,” a brightly decorated outbuilding called “4 Teens By Teens.” They sort through the clothes, singling out those that are in style, and organize them by size. Clothes that don’t make the teen-style cut are passed on to other organizations.

“The kids really put a lot of thought and effort into the clothes they choose,” said Mrs. Lawlor, explaining that one way volunteers distribute clothing is by filling individual requests through a system they call “pick and pack.” Virginia Beach social workers drop off wish lists for clothes for a certain gender and size; it’s the volunteers’ job to go through the clothes and find the ones that might best suit that particular order. “The girls mix and match and try to make outfits,” Mrs. Lawlor said. “Occasionally, we receive donations of jewelry and purses, so the girls might add a necklace or purse to go with the outfit. The boys take time with choosing, too,” she added with a laugh, noting that the boys of today typically care more about how they look than they did in the nineties.

Through this ministry, the parish teens strive to fill more than one need. Whether it was pedal pushers or skinny jeans, flannel shirts or fluorescent ones, most of us can remember something special we longed for, wanting to fit in. Volunteers at the closet endeavor to bring their peers not only the clothing they need, but a sense of belonging as well.

The volunteers get together every second Saturday morning to listen to music and fill orders. They place the requested clothes into a bag and staple the order form to the top. Parish donations provide money for the purchase of new socks and underwear, which are added to the bags, along with accessories and toiletries. A keypad on the door enables social workers to pick up the orders when they are able.

Sometimes, social workers bring teens and parents directly to the clothing closet so that the teens can choose clothes for themselves and try them on.

Christa Van Geluwe, a sophomore at Cox High School, has been volunteering at the closet for the past two and half years. Her favorite part of working at 4 Teens By Teens, she explained, is adding small touches to make the closet more inviting to those coming in for clothing. “Lately we’ve been getting a lot of new ideas,” she said, such as adding tags to make clothing sizes more readily visible.

“We like to make it feel more like shopping,” she said.

Halle Speight and Caroline Dixon, both freshmen at Cape Henry Collegiate, said that they were drawn to volunteer at the closet because they felt it was a project they could contribute to in a meaningful way.

“I know about clothes and about what girls like to wear,” said Ms. Speight. “So I thought it would be a good way to help other kids.”

“It’s something I know about,” Ms. Dixon agreed, “so I thought it would be a good ministry for me.”

The idea for the clothing closet was launched when the daughter of a Virginia Beach social worker was attending Confirmation classes at Holy Family. Youth minister Mr. Jeff Mingin explained that the construction of the closet took a little time – but thanks to the efforts of facilities manager Glenn Rodriguez and a team of volunteers, it was soon completed.

“The only way this building is going to move is if God moves it,” Mr. Mingin said with a laugh. But obtaining a building was only the beginning. Making it feel welcoming was another job altogether.

“You could see some of the kids hesitate. They didn’t feel comfortable coming inside,” Mrs. Lawlor explained, noting that many of the teens felt self-conscious about picking out clothes from a building by a parking lot. Especially since, at the time, the clothes were stored in rows of large bags and piled haphazardly on shelves, so that the teens had to forage for clothes that fit. “Some of the kids volunteering even said, ‘I wouldn’t want to go in there if I were them.’”

So volunteers set to work making it into a boutique, adding racks and smaller shelves along the walls.

Curtis Morgan, a senior at Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School, helped to build the shelves two years ago. “It was rough,” he said, recalling how the closet looked originally. “But we were ready to get started. And just knowing you are helping kids your age, and in your area, keeps you coming.”

Today, a colorful array of clothes and shoes are displayed along three walls. One corner of the room has been curtained off to form a changing area for teens who come to the closet with a parent. A trendy lamp gives the closet a homey glow. “Now once they come in, they see it’s like going into a friend’s closet,” Mrs. Lawlor said. “They find it’s not so bad—it’s kitschy and cool.”

Mrs. Lawlor credits Mr. Mingin with making volunteering an integral part of the parish’s youth ministry, bringing what could be an abstract lesson to life.

“Jeff really brings it all together and builds what could be a small volunteer job into a true ministry,” she said, adding, “They are learning they are part of a bigger picture, to live out Christ’s message. They are doing something that is helping someone who is real. You might never meet them, or they might be sitting right in a classroom with you, and you would never know.”