DeWanna Closet mission to meet the needs of Calcasieu students

Published 8:10 am Sunday, May 8, 2022

It’s normal to cut items off the grocery list and delay big purchases when money is tight. But for those whose income was limited before the pandemic and hurricanes wreaked havoc in Louisiana, further trimming a budget can mean choosing one basic need over another.

DeWanna’s Closet has been a Southwest Louisiana staple to ensure the needs and nourishment of students are met in such a critical time.

Originally stationed at J.D. Clifton Elementary School, the nonprofit was formed to provide new shoes and uniforms to Calcasieu Parish public school students in need. Two years in, the organization outgrew the space so the program’s founder, DeWanna Tarver converted a guest house on her property into much-needed warehouse space.

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“I think getting started in a school gave us credibility with teachers,” she said. “It was a good place to start.”

Now, the nonprofit is distributing 497 articles of clothing a week to students within the parish with Barbe Elementary, College Oaks, Combre-Fondel, E.K. Key, W.W. Lewis, LeBleu Settlement, Prien Lake and Vinton Elementary and F.K. White requesting the most.

“It’s been a tough couple of years, as we all know, so we decided to venture into school supplies, as well,” she said.

Shorten the List, a school supply drive, was their next move.

“We asked local schools if they would give us the next year’s school supply list by the end of December, we would work from January to April to raise the money to buy the supplies off that list so that every child in the parish would benefit from the program,” she said.

For the 2019-2020 school year, the nonprofit raised $263,845.13 for the needed $500,000 worth of supplies.

In January 2020, when they were in the middle of their drive for the following school term, the world — and their efforts— were halted because of COVID.

“As a business owner I didn’t know what my future held and I could not go out and ask other business owners to donate, but we were still able to raise $207,000 before that happened and all those supplies were bought and in schools when Hurricane Laura hit and they were destroyed,” she said.

The Calcasieu Parish School Board would later commit half a million dollars for the next three years to buy school supplies for elementary and middle school-aged children so the nonprofit shifted their focus to the needed chair backs for elementary students.

“We realized early on that if you walked into a classroom of 20, 18 kids would have denim chair backs and two wouldn’t and those were the poor kids who were singled out for being different,” she said. “At the beginning of the school year, we told teachers to send us how many chair backs they needed to ensure that every child who need a chair back got one. We ended up spending $6,000 in one day on chair backs. We knew we were going to keep doing it, but not like this.”

She said watching an episode of “Shark Tank” in which the participants created products out of billboards gave her the idea of creating chair backs with the vinyl material.

“This is a true story, I received a leftover vinyl billboard and I wanted to see how big it was and I had my 5-year-old niece over so we decided to roll it out across the front yard and make it into a slip ‘n’ slide and it turns out it was for Love Shack,” she said with a laugh.

They used it anyway, measuring it and cutting it into the needed strips to be sewn into chair backs. The group partnered with Angola-Louisiana State Penitentiary the next year and their inmates created 16,000 chair backs.

“They charged us $3.25 for each one, which included the material, the labor and the delivery,” she said. “A lot of them are three years old now, but still in use because they’re tough and they held up.”

With their clothing and supply programs running well, Tarver’s next venture was not something she initially sought out — ensuring children who relied on the free breakfasts and lunches during the week at their schools would not go hungry over the weekends.

“We had plenty going on and I knew nothing about food distribution and how to handle that, we didn’t have room and I didn’t think it was meant to be.”

God had other plans, she said.

Sale Street Baptist Church had an extra building that was not being used and asked the Tarvers if they could use it.

“I said absolutely not, we have too much going on,” she said. “But by the end of the month we received a $50,000 Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield grant to address food insecurity, then we received a $20,000 grant from Walmart to address food insecurity, and then a company called KD Food Distributors out of Chicago found out about us and flew representatives to meet with us and said, ‘You need to do this. The need is here.’ So I went back to my church and said if the building was still available we’d like to use it.”

It was.

The nonprofit created the Food for Thought program and began feeding 250 students in September.

“This week we will feed 706 kids and it’s costing us $5 a bag, which is about $3,500 a week on food,” she said. “We haven’t found the person yet who is going to donate all the food we need so we piece it all together by visiting different stores in the area and we make it work, and we haven’t missed a week doing it.”

She said if that number continues to be maintained, it will take $525,000 to run the program next year.

“Every statistic is telling us there is between eight and nine students at every public school in Calcasieu Parish who face food insecurity; it’s about 30-31 percent of the total enrollment,” she said. “We’re nowhere near where we need to be, but we’re better than where we were before.”