On a cold winter night a few years ago, Heather Wing arrived at the hospital to meet two children she would be fostering. The children had been removed from their home on such short notice that one of them wasn't wearing socks. Before taking them home, Wing had to stop by a 24-hour Meijer to grab something for the kids to sleep in.
"These kids come with virtually nothing in most cases," says Wing, who has fostered six children over four years. The next day, she called the Michigan Foster Care Closet
and set an appointment to get clothes for both kids.
The closet provides free clothing for children placed with licensed foster families across Michigan. Created in 2016, it has grown from a small operation in private homes to a 5,100-square-foot warehouse at 37 Enterprise Dr. in Scio Township.
"The foster closet was like the only agency, the only nonprofit that really enabled us to do what we needed to do and understood what we were going through," Wing says.
Michigan Foster Care Closet Board Vice President Heather Wing.
She has since become the vice president of the organization's board, bringing her experience as a foster parent with her.
"Sometimes I give my advice or my perspective as someone who was on the other side of a lot of this," she says.
Michigan Foster Care Closet Board President Karen Field also has experience with the foster system – from the state's side.
"Unfortunately, we were probably putting kids in foster care," she says.
Field is a retired prosecutor who oversaw the Washtenaw County Juvenile Team, which handles delinquency and child protective cases. She is now the director of Supportive Connections
, a city program that provides support for individuals who are at risk of entering or reentering the criminal justice system. Besides their personal and professional experience with the system, Field says she and Wing "do the unsexy things like pay the rent" to keep the closet running. They also handle PR and fundraising so the closet can grow.
Michigan Foster Care Closet Board President Karen Field.
The ultimate goal of foster care is to return children to their permanent family. Placement is intended to be temporary, but how long children are in foster care varies greatly.
"It can be weeks, months, and sometimes it can be years," Field says.
According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), there are about 10,000 children in foster care across the state. But there are not nearly enough licensed foster parents to house them.
The department recommends
increasing stipends for foster parents by at least 8%, creating a respite program for caregivers, and putting more resources into recruiting and training prospective foster parents. The state adopted some of their recommendations in next year's budget
Funding can be a major hurdle for families fostering children. Medicaid covers children's medical and dental costs, but foster parents are responsible for most expenses. The state provides about $20 to $25 per day to families, but Wing says it comes out to "pennies on the hour."
Michigan Foster Care Closet Board Director Jennie Sharp.
"The goal is that this will be around as long as foster care exists," says Jennie Sharp, the closet director, who handles the lion's share of daily operations for the organization. She estimates the closet has helped around 1,500 children so far this year.
To access the closet, families must set up an appointment. Sharp says this practice began in large part due to COVID-19 restrictions, but has remained because it makes the shopping experience easier for everyone.
"When you have kids coming from [a] traumatic situation, that much going on, [it] can really cause meltdowns," she explained.
Everything is free and children keep the clothes they choose, even when they return to their parents or relatives (as is required by MDHHS). Each child can shop for clothes once per quarter, allowing families to replace clothes that have worn out or become too small.
Wing says this usually means seven outfits, three pairs of shoes, and other necessities like jackets, pajamas, socks, and underwear. Besides clothes, the closet provides school supplies, books, toys, car seats, strollers, and cribs.
The Michigan Foster Care Closet.
Foster parents are licensed for a range of ages and don't always know the age of the child (or children) coming to stay with them until they meet them. Sharp says the closet can usually squeeze in families with emergency placements – like the children Wing picked up at the hospital, sockless – within 24 to 72 hours, even when the closet is already booked out for weeks.
The closet only serves children placed with licensed foster parents, and closet staff verify families' paperwork before they go shopping. The state of Michigan requires prospective foster parents to submit to a background check, provide letters of recommendation, attend training, and more. The licensing process can take several months.
Once licensed, foster parents must follow requirements set forth by MDHHS. This includes enrolling children in school, providing transportation to therapist and parental visits, and providing their case worker with updates on children's emotional and physical well-being. Providing clothing is a few sentences out of 20 pages, but the closet's volunteers say it can make a big difference in a child's life.
"Being able to pick out your own clothes gives you a little bit of control in a time that is completely out of control," Wing says.
Sharp says she intentionally designed the closet interior to look like a clothing boutique, rather than a thrift store. She spent one Mother's Day laying 1,900 square feet of carpet in the warehouse space with her husband and five children. Sharp also decorated each room with lights and lanterns, and obscured the warehouse's exposed vents as much as possible. She says she hopes the closet will eventually own its own space, enabling the organization to help more children.
"I don't want [the kids] coming in and feeling like they're putting on somebody's old clothes," she says. "I want them to feel loved and respected." She also removes the tags from new clothes, to "even the playing field."
The Michigan Foster Care Closet.
She and the board set a high bar for what they offer kids. Volunteers check donations for quality and ensure children are getting new or gently used items.
"If you wouldn't wear [it], we're not going to take it," Field says.
The closet and its volunteers are preparing for their next seasonal event, a holiday party on Nov. 5 where donors can sponsor children's gift baskets. Field expects over 400 children and parents to attend. In addition, the closet is launching its annual holiday sponsorship drive and sibling gift exchange.
Field, Wing, and Sharp encourage people to contribute any way they can
– monetary donations, clothing, or items bought from the closet's Amazon wishlists.
"These children are our future," Sharp says. "If you can build some sort of hope and give them a good memory or something, you could possibly change the trajectory of their life."
Elinor Epperson is a freelance journalist based in Ypsilanti. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at Michigan State University, focusing on environmental, health, and science reporting.
All photos by Doug Coombe.