In her five years as a court-appointed advocate for Child Advocates San Antonio (CASA), Cathy Hamilton repeatedly witnessed children and teenagers in foster care who couldn't afford new clothes. They habitually wore old hand-me-downs and, in some cases, clothes that were falling apart. Last year, she decided she had seen enough and decided to raise money to provide San Antonio's foster kids with new or new-like clothing at no cost.
Hamilton said that San Antonio Threads is the first of its kind in the city. Other nonprofits give out this type of clothing occasionally – around the holidays or during prom season, for example – but none on the everyday scale that San Antonio Threads has been operating on since it began in November 2015. To date, the nonprofit has helped more than 300 kids in need and Hamilton expects that number to reach 500 by the end of the year.
"What we need for our girls is everyday things, like a pair of blue jeans and a T-shirt," she said. "Let them choose their own beauty items so that they're prepared when they go on to their next stop, whether they're moving to a new high school, new foster home, or wherever they're going."
At first, Hamilton operated San Antonio Threads out of her own home, but when she started to run out of space for the increasing volume of donated clothes, she reached out to the community on social media to find a potential location.
Boys Town Texas invited her to tour their largely empty second floor nearly a year ago. Soon after, she set up shop in the space – rent-free. She uses most of the rooms to display clothes on racks which patrons can browse through; the rest of the space has been reinvented as changing rooms and as a beauty bar that is stocked with toiletries and other essentials.
"I'm very grateful to Boys Town, because they saw where I was going," she said. "They could see why this was needed."
Hamilton said the girls tend to be skeptical when they arrive, expecting the quality of the clothes to be similar to that of the average thrift store. They are all the more pleasantly surprised when they find rooms full of new clothes hanging on the racks.
"A group told me, 'We thought we'd have to look through boxes. We didn't know that they were going to be on hangers, or that there was going to be jewelry, and all of this presentation,'" Hamilton recalled.
The target age group is 12-21 years old. A lot of the older kids, like the group that comes from the Healy-Murphy Center, are looking for clothes to wear to job interviews. While it caters mostly to girls, Hamilton said that she's starting to get donations of boys' clothing as well.
The individuals that come through the store to "shop" are usually in foster care, a system that doesn't always make them feel cared for. The handful of volunteers who help Hamilton run the shop do what they can to give the kids a warm, personal experience.
"A volunteer with Mary Kay will come out and do little makeovers. Another one is a certified yoga instructor, so when we have large groups she'll give mini yoga lessons on the way out," she said. "And we have plenty of volunteers that can help (the shoppers) find a size, a color, or something to complete an outfit."
A lot of girls will tell Hamilton afterward that they didn't think anybody cared this much about foster kids. She tells them that the majority of the items are donated by members of the community, so that they understand that there are indeed people out there who care.
"We've had a few sponsors, but the majority is from the community," Hamilton said. "Every day, I will show up here and there will be bags of donations left for me or people contacting me. Almost all of our clothing is from the community. It's a community that wants to help."
Kicharnae Earls is one of those foster kids. From age 8-18, she was in and out of the foster care system because the State deemed her mother unfit to care for children. Now, she's a 22-year-old freshman at Northwest Vista College. She said that the clothes she received from San Antonio Threads gave her a newfound confidence and a desire to give back as a volunteer for the store.
"This place means a lot, especially this semester since I was trying to get everything together financially," Earls said. "I was really happy when I first came here. I enjoyed coming here and getting more than I expected. (Hamilton), as a CASA worker, knows what we go through and what our needs are. So she's helping provide those things."
A student at the Healy-Murphy Center, 17-year-old Yesenia Carrillo, told the Rivard Report in a Wednesday phone interview that her low expectations for the center were exceeded when she went the first time.
"I was skeptical at first. I thought I'd find used, old clothes," Carillo said. "But when I got there I found good-quality clothes. It made me feel better. It's a life changing experience to know that someone could help us in this way."
Hamilton said that while she's on her way to stocking enough clothes to support the number of girls and boys in foster care in San Antonio, she still needs help from the community.
"We're going to get to about half of them, but there's (about) 1,000 teen girls in foster care here. I'm sure it's a similar number of boys," she said. "So we will continue to need support. I'll need more volunteers to help me process donations. We need companies, churches, and other nonprofits to help fund us so that we can keep this going."
Right now, she operates the organization on a part-time basis, but aims to go full time as word about San Antonio Threads continues to spread. She said the more kids come in, the more organizations will contact her to collaborate.
"When you get involved with the foster care system, it's just one of those things that makes you think 'Our community can do better,'" Hamilton said. "And with this place, our community has done better. It's amazing to see these girls and be able to be here for them."
To learn more about the nonprofit and how to donate, click here.