The following is a conversation between Mickey Cockrell, co-founder and CEO of Catie’s Closet, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Catie’s Closet transforms unused spaces into free in-school stores or closets where pre-K through 12th grade students in need have immediate access to basic necessities and quality, up-to-date clothing. Access to clothing and supplies helps to increase students’ self-esteem and sense of belonging. And here to tell us more about what they do and the difference they’re making is Mickey Cockrell, the co-founder and CEO of Catie’s Closet.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Mickey.
Mickey: I’m so happy to be here today.
Denver: Share with us the vision you had that led to the launch of Catie’s Closet.
Mickey: Oh, wow. Actually, it came about for two reasons. One is why it’s called Catie’s Closet. So Catie was my niece and she was born with an unknown illness. Two doctors gave it a name when she was 15 called Loeys-Dietz syndrome. And the unusual thing about Cate was that she adored school. She had 40 surgeries in 20 years. She did pass away at the age of 20, but every time she was facing something, she would say, “Okay, but you know, I’m taking my laptop, bring me my homework,” and “Tell me when I’m going to return to school because it’s important.”
And the second reason was a newspaper article that appeared in our hometown. And this reporter had shadowed two kids who were homeless, living under a bridge in the city, and he chronicled what they had to go through in a given week to survive. And we were dumbfounded as if we lived under a rock. Here we were… I was one of six children living in this community and not understanding. And my sister, you know, Cate was in the hospital at the time, brought the newspaper article and then just said, “Cate, did you know there were homeless kids in your school when you were there?”
And she said, “Yeah, mom, but all they want is a chance to go to school like everyone else.” And that just stuck with us. Cate passed away three months after that conversation, and it was the birth of what we do today and our mission.
Denver: Yeah. I had Deborah Hughes from Brookview House on recently, and there is this misnomer that homelessness are a bunch of guys, because we see the bunch of guys on the T or on the subway, but so many are women and children. So much of it is caused by domestic abuse that they are forced to the street, and society doesn’t even know that because we don’t cover it. Now, there was a vision though and I think it came from The Wizard of Oz, right?
Mickey: Yeah, for me, there’s that magical moment. It’s kind of strange to go all the way back to your childhood, but you know that moment when the house lands and Dorothy opens the door, and it goes from black and white to color?
Denver: Oh, how can you forget that?!
Mickey: That’s the point where like we, our iconic symbol is a door, and that door represents an open door and a brighter future. And every time a child gets to open the door to a Catie’s Closet, then it absolutely represents a brighter future. And the image I have in my mind is that Wizard of Oz, that magical moment, that look in Dorothy’s eyes when she sees this new world roll out for her, and yes.
Denver: I really do love that image. Mickey, what’s the impact that clothing has on the health and well-being of a child?
Mickey: So access to clothing and basic necessities is actually a top five reason for absenteeism. And our core mission is to combat chronic absenteeism. We want to give children a reason to run towards school for the solution and not hang out and choose another avenue that’s not going to be advantageous for them. But clothing is the most visible sign of poverty, and children are most sensitive about the way they look.
So you can imagine if you’re going to school with dirty, tattered clothes, clothes that are too small, clothes that you’re going to be a target of bullying right away, then you don’t feel a sense of belonging. You don’t fit in and feel valued, and you’re not going to go to school. And that’s what we see every single day..
Denver: Yeah. There’s a lot of peer pressure. There’s a lot of social pressure. And as you say, you can judge a book by its cover in some ways. They see the clothes, and they jump to unfair conclusions, and it must be really, really tough.
Mickey: It’s really most disconcerting when a child, say, might start as a freshman in high school, and all they have in their closet is the clothes they wore in seventh grade. Well, we all know it doesn’t fit. So never mind style, it just doesn’t fit. And look at the impression that they’re walking in on the first day of school, and they’re called all kinds of names and bullied. And again, judging a book by its cover. And all they did is innocently say, “I just picked what was in my closet and went to school. Why am I a target? Why don’t I fit in? Why is there problem?”
And that’s when it just becomes sad, just sad. But we’re there to help, and that’s the biggest part. Our closets are there for a child to transform themselves in seconds.
Denver: How many closets are there now?
Denver: Mm-hmm. And what are the closets stocked with, and how do you keep them stocked?
Mickey: Yes. We’re very community-centric, so our closets have… We open them actually with about 1,500 units minimum, 20,000 at thrift rates. So that’s the value in a closet. We sort it pre-K to 12th grade, which means we have elementary school closets, middle school, and high school. So age-appropriate clothing, all of the basics, including underwear and socks, full-sized toiletries, which are always new. We tried hotel minis, and a lot of people try to donate many things, but they don’t work. Not only are those bottles flimsy and they break in a child’s backpack, but it’s not enough. Like they would have to come and return every two days to get something new.
So one of the top, top items, deodorant and soap… a child wants to feel clean all the time– shampoo, period products because that is a major issue where girls are missing anywhere from several days to a week of school every single month because it’s very expensive. They don’t have access. School supplies, we have shoes. And we have special needs. So some of our children might be autistic or have sensory challenges; or they may be transitioning and need special products; or they could be, like we’re transitioning refugees from Afghanistan right now, so there may be some cultural needs.
So we look to the community to donate. The community donates new and gently-used clothing. We also partner with many companies to host drives and to donate in-kind donations if they’re manufacturers.
Denver: Mickey, how does a child find a Catie’s Closet in the school? Is there a door that says Catie’s Closet? Or does their ambassador tell them where it is? Or how does that all work, that dynamic?
Mickey: So our school closets are located in a discreet part of the school. So we want to make sure that we are providing the utmost dignity and discretion for any child. And yes, there is a sign on the door. It actually says, “Catie’s Closet, an open door to a brighter future” because it’s so much more than clothes. And a child can self-identify as in need: “I’m struggling right now. Please help me. I don’t have what I need.” Or a school administrator can identify a child because of the way they’re acting or not participating… or their rate of absenteeism.
So a child can ask to visit a closet, or an administrator can bring them to the closet. The closets are locked, which means it’s always a facilitated visit because we want to find out, and we have the opportunity to in this sacred, safe space: what else the child needs. This is where we find out: they may be food insecure or homeless, or they may be being bullied or hit by drug traffickers or human traffickers. Just whatever problems there are, the school is equipped to help them link up to supportive opportunities.
So they can visit on their way to school before they hit their first classroom. They could pass through Catie’s Closet, get outfitted from head to toe, and land in their classroom new and reborn and feeling like everyone else; Or an administrator can bring them in when they’re comfortable, before class, after class, during class. It wouldn’t be unusual for a student to be paged to the office and what they’re really going to be doing is: visit the closet.
“And that’s why that door is so important. That ability to go in and say, “I need help,” and to make sure there’s a ready person to say, “I’m here to help.”
Denver: So I can hear too that opening the door to Catie’s Closet can also open a lot of other doors to that child’s life.
Mickey: A child under 18 has no rights, very few. There’s no one to advocate for them, unless we do. A child under 18, unaccompanied, can’t enter a shelter on their own. So we are forcing our children into avenues that they’re just vulnerable to. And that’s why that door is so important. That ability to go in and say, “I need help,” and to make sure there’s a ready person to say, “I’m here to help.”
“…our vision is really to see this be a universal global message, to accept each other for who we are, to realize that we’re all uniquely made– a hundred percent individual, and have talents that are far beyond anyone we’re standing next to.”
Denver: At the core of all this and something you’re really working to create a movement around is your Be Me Initiative. Tell us about that.
Mickey: Oh, Denver, you’re touching my heart, I’m telling you. So when all these events in the last few years occurred, we wondered: Are we doing everything right? Do we support our children in the way that we need to? Have we heard them? So we put a survey out there and just said, “Do you like Catie’s Closet? Do you get what you need? Is there something missing? What do you like about Catie’s Closet?” So they were saying all kinds of things that I had to look up in a dictionary, “It’s the bomb! It’s on fire! It’s…” I’m like, is that good or bad?
So they were really adorable. And they said, “We absolutely love Catie’s Closet. We wouldn’t be able to go to school without it. But do you have hair products for natural and textured hair?” And I fell through the floor. 70% of our children are diverse, and it never even occurred to me that we get Suave shampoo or some other brands donated every single day, but we weren’t taking care of our children. And so that was an initiative we took right home.
But the second part, they said was, ” What we love about Catie’s Closet is Catie’s Closet lets me be me.” And they’ll say, “Be me for five minutes, and walk in my footsteps. You won’t like it. You won’t be able to survive.” They elaborated by saying,” We don’t like labels. We don’t want to be called economically disadvantaged to low-income. We don’t want to be called Black, Latino, Asian, or White.” We want to be Mickey and Denver first. “Please know me, and then let me tell you all the wonderful things that make me wonderful, including my culture.”
So, “See me for who I am!” was a big deal, and that just struck all of us to the core, and so much so that we trademarked it, with our iconic door, because the words “Be Me” are universal. And our vision is really to see this be a universal global message, to accept each other for who we are, to realize that we’re all uniquely made– a hundred percent individual, and have talents that are far beyond anyone we’re standing next to.
So how do we empower the children to be me? How do we empower you and I, and all of our peers and friends and family to be me, and stop the labeling, and stop the division? The kids don’t want to grow up in this culture at all. So our hope is to make it a movement and…
Denver: How do you do that? How do you make it a movement? What are some of the things you’re thinking about because it’s a great movement?
Mickey: Ah, thank you. In the schools, we want to start a student advisory council, and there’ll be boots on the ground in every school that will promote positivity, and that’s something we’re working on and hope to roll out in the next school year. But globally, we would like to have our manufacturers and retailers, mind you, I spent 30 years in retail so maybe that’s where part of this comes from. But wouldn’t it be amazing if you went to your favorite store… and it was Old Navy or Ralph Lauren or TJ Maxx or wherever you are, and you went and picked out your favorite jeans and they had a label on it called “Be Me” hang tag?
And you knew when you bought your favorite jeans that reflected your personality and your style, that you knew a percentage of that sale is going to go to the children in need in this nation or this world. Then it would encourage all of us all the time to “Be Me,” to continue to shop where you want to shop and buy what you want to buy, but a philanthropy part of this that would help say Yes! to our ability to support more children.
Denver: Yeah, corporate partners. You need some corporate partners to take it out there, give you a part of the proceeds. But as important as that is to get the word out, I also know that you guys launched a new mobile app not that long ago. Tell us about it.
Mickey: Ah, Denver, this is our way to really funnel children’s clothes more than anything. You can imagine every city– and we are in 10 school districts right now, 11 actually if you count our new affiliate in Long Island. And with all of this, there’s always more elementary schools in a city than there are high schools or middle schools. So we needed a way in order to get donations shipped to us.
So if you downloaded the app, iOS or Android, which is Catie’s Closet, in a few swipes, you can donate your no-longer-needed, gently-used children’s clothes, and either drop it off if you’re near one of our distribution centers, or ask for a mailing label. And Boom! This product comes in to serve the children right here in the United States and are not shipped off to… we don’t know where it might land, and instead it’s going right where we’re servicing, which is, right now, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Long Island.
Denver: Being so close to these schools and the children that you serve, what’s been the impact of COVID? We had, I think, about 8 million more children went into poverty… would be the largest demographic group, not to label a group, but children probably have the highest poverty of any demographic in the country. What have you seen up close in terms of the impact of COVID on these young people?
Mickey: Wow. It’s immeasurable almost. First of all, back to the point you had made is the average age of homelessness is nine so we usually have that image of an older person. And there are over 30 million children in our nation alone that qualify for our services. So what happened with COVID is those numbers rose exponentially. And our phone rings off the hook with people requesting us to either bring a closet to their school, open their community, or expand across the nation, which is why we developed an affiliate model.
So during this pandemic, they lost more than learning, reading, and writing. They lost coping skills, and all of our schools struggle with some level of decreased ability to just function in school. During the pandemic, we never closed. We were deemed essential right away. And as meal sites popped up everywhere in order to provide children…. They lost their access to food once the schools closed. And so they had to put meal sites in all of the cities to make sure children could access food. We partnered with all those meal sites in order to provide all of our basic necessities and access to clothing.
So we follow what happens during the pandemic and how many people, through either a job loss, or an illness, or a death in the family, just pitched into poverty and are now unfortunately labeled low income and need the support services of food and basic necessities. And then again, now that they’re back in school, they’re struggling to catch up, and parents still– if there is a parent or a guardian or a foster or whoever is taking care of our children– are struggling to catch up.
So maybe they have gotten so far where they can turn the electricity on, or they might be able to pay a month’s rent, but they can’t provide for their children. So our need just tripled during the pandemic.
“We view ourselves as the Army or the Marines, the first responders, because as we, as a community, work together to add all kinds of services to our schools and programs; they’re ineffective unless children show up. So our mission is to get children in the door, and once they’re there, we can shape them with all of the other tools that are out there.”
Denver: And I think when it gets down to this issue of catching up, we sometimes look at things a little too simply, and it ain’t going to take a year or two. It’s going to take many years to make up for these couple of years that these kids were out of school, fell behind in reading. And as you said, in the emotional health and social and coping skills, you just, if you’re seven or eight years old, it’s a long haul in terms of really trying to catch up, if you will.
Tell me a little bit about philanthropy. How could philanthropy be more effective in working with an organization like Catie’s Closet?
Mickey: I think there’s room to re-imagine just what the definition of need is, and revenue, and expense. We’re an extremely productive organization. So 15 employees, including myself, 400 volunteers. We leverage free space in schools. We leverage free donations from the community and this volunteer labor. So for costs of like $9 a child, they have access to a Catie’s Closet all year. But how does that stack up when we post our P&L or our revenue and expense line, and what we qualify for or what we do or what our need is?
As we’re trying to give 94% of every penny we make to the program; we take very little overhead. And that overhead is obviously to lease our distribution centers, have trucks on the road to deliver our product to all schools. So philanthropy needs to also recognize 70,000 children are being supported in this one program. And so how do you measure exactly what that is? And I think in many philanthropic organizations, there’s like a checklist… please meet all of these things. So say, we’re not curriculum-based, we may not be education-based, but we’re that supporter.
We view ourselves as the Army or the Marines, the first responders, because as we, as a community, work together to add all kinds of services to our schools and programs; they’re ineffective unless children show up. So our mission is to get children in the door, and once they’re there, we can shape them with all of the other tools that are out there. So we need more money; we need to understand how many children are in need and the portion of those dollars per child. And we need to say yes to more kids, and we hope our philanthropic partners will do that with us.
Denver: Yeah. Unfortunately, sometimes philanthropy fills a niche, and people don’t live their lives in niches. That’s not the way you operate your life. You operate your life getting up every morning and brushing your teeth and putting on your clothes and things of that sort. That may not fit neatly into a niche, but none of those niches occur unless that one takes place. But as you said, it’s not on the punch list that they sometimes are looking at it in terms of graduation rates or things of that nature.
So they have to get a little bit more creative, it would seem, in terms of what they fund and fund things along the lines of the way people live their lives. We don’t deal with these problems or challenges one at a time, sequentially. They’re all mixed up together in terms of what you call your day.
Mickey: Denver, you nailed that. You just nailed that. I think we need to get that excerpt out of your video podcast and need to spread that around the world. You’re absolutely right.
“…it really taught me and developed the leadership skills for my team to think out of the box and understand that you need to be a bit visionary. You need to be clear. You need to be nimble. You need to be reactive and proactive.”
Denver: How has your leadership changed over the course of the last two years? I know this is not an easy time to be in charge, and you’ve got 15 people there. And I think the expectations of you have changed probably from those people and from others. How have you seen leadership change? And how have you tried to adapt to this new world that we’re in?
Mickey: My background really aided that question or concern. Being in retail for 30 years, you really have to be nimble, and you have to change with the changing market, and so much so that I coauthored a book in one of my career choices called… not a book, a binder, an operations binder for our crew, and it was called “Doing Business in Tough Times.” So it really taught me and developed the leadership skills for my team to think out of the box. And understand that you need to be a bit visionary. You need to be clear. You need to be nimble. You need to be reactive and proactive.
So over these last two years, that’s why when they deemed us essential. It was easy for me to pivot. And I could just rely on those resources and pivot in terms of: We always had two ways of delivering our services, the in-school closet model which we pioneered at scale, at the scale that we’re doing it. And the second was serving children in transition. So we learned that children could be removed at a moment’s notice. DCF or another social service agency could walk into a school to remove a child at the end of their school day and say, “You’re not going home.”
And when they remove them, it’s with the clothes on their back. So what happens? How do they get back to school tomorrow? How do they even function? Think about a “red bat phone” that exists at Catie’s Closet to receive that call and to get that going. So we have this back-of-the-house service model that we were serving agencies and our kids in transition. So when the pandemic happened, it might’ve been 70% in school and 30% transition; I just flipped the model.
So I just went to the back-of-the-house model in transition and got my team to get there. And then I had a very clear and concise plan and goal to articulate to our philanthropic partners to say, “Hey, this is how we’re dealing with COVID.” And guess what? One of the most essential needs right now is soap and sanitary products, because that’s how we were going to mitigate the spread of the disease.
So we had the tools in the toolbox, and we just reacted very, very quickly. And so I will give credit to the team, the community that supported us throughout all of this, and just that business background. So I think I approach Catie’s Closet as a for-profit business all the time.
Denver: That’s the way you got to do it. Yeah.
Mickey: That’s the way I function and adapt those skills in the nonprofit world.
Denver: You were at Kohl’s. And Boy! Every time I turn around, there was a new Kohl’s popping up, and every time you turn around, there’s a new Catie Closet. You said “scale” before, so let me ask you about maybe one of those tips you had in that binder about scale. You started with one, I think I saw a TED Talk of yours, Mickey, a couple of years ago when you had 22, and now we’re at 105 plus. What would be one tip you would give people about scaling the way you have?
Mickey: Retail also teaches you to be very cost-effective. Most people think that there’s quite a margin in retail, and there is not. When you have to pay for the brick and mortar and the overhead, and just the movement of clothing from one place to another, it’s a very low-profit margin when it all comes together. And payroll, and lease, and rent or own is the most part.
And Kohl’s was tremendous at teaching me that, at being very, very efficient in our square footage. They have a model that really works and that, you know, here’s four executives to run a building, and you don’t do more than that. instead, you add at different levels, but this is how you can be productive and efficient. And I took that into Catie’s Closet.
So whether we’re running 1,200 stores across the nation or 1,200 closets in a school, logistically, operationally, it’s the same mindset. So it’s a hub-and-spoke model made to distribution centers, serving the spokes which are the schools. And so I just adopted that thought process for scale and realized that one distribution center is designed to serve a minimum of 50 schools and 50,000 children in a community.
So we have one in the Merrimack Valley. We opened a second one to serve just the kids in Boston because there’s 56,000 children there. Now we’re working on our third in Western Mass, and then we formulated an affiliate model to say, What if we put together all the things we know really, really well and can help every other… state or major community, be it urban or suburban, get started? And that’s how we will scale.
And I have received calls from over 30 states in the nation, which was a reason to develop this affiliate model. It’s written very advantageously and tightly, almost like a franchise. But franchises don’t really exist in the nonprofit world because of the legal part. A nonprofit won’t spend that money on something that’s not going to benefit the children directly.
Denver: Yeah. It sounds like a little bit of a change, too. You’re going from a direct service model; it’s almost like a consultant in terms of giving open source and trying to help these affiliates get going. So there’s always a little change that that has to incur. If I may, let me close with this. Tell us the story about one of the children that you have served and you have helped.
Mickey: Oh, Wow. This one’s a sad story and at the same time… well, actually, I can tell you about Alexandria. And she was a girl that just lived in and out of foster care. She had two younger siblings, and her mother happened to be embroiled in drugs. And any money they earned, she would have to sell the drugs on the street at nine years old in order to support her brothers. She landed in foster home after foster home, and she found Catie’s Closet when she was 16 years old.
And when she went into there, it was life-changing. She said, “For the first time, I could get up in my life, and I could face school. And I was able to wear clothing that my friends and peers wore that I could never use and I could never buy.” And she excelled in school at that point. And at 19, she went back to, as a single, went back to one of her foster homes and adopted a nine-year-old boy who was in the same shape as she was. She married her high school sweetheart eventually. They adopted a second child, and then had a third on their own.
And this young lady even ran for public office in the city she lived in, and she attributes it to Catie’s Closet because without that open door, without that Wizard of Oz moment, Denver, where her whole life changed in an instant, she wouldn’t have been able to get back in the manner that she did, and she just continues to thrive in the community today.
Denver: Beautiful story and an extraordinary way to end our conversation. For listeners who want to learn more about Catie’s Closet or financially support it, or otherwise tell us about your website, and how they can get involved.
Mickey: Yes. And we would appreciate it. Please visit catiescloset.org, and you can find everything there. You can download our Catie’s Closet mobile app on iOS or Android. And there’s many ways to give, and it’s clearly on there, from in-kind support to financial support, to even understand how to open a closet or adopt a closet. So catiescloset.org.
Denver: Fantastic. Thanks, Mickey, for being here today. It was a real delight to have you on the show.
Mickey: Thank you, Denver. It was my pleasure.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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