By Marisa Gottesman Sun Sentinel.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.
Lynda Walsh, a court-appointed advocate for children from Delray Beach, Fla., wants kids to look fashionable no matter how tight of a budget they are on.
To provide youth with clothing of all sizes and accessories to match, Walsh recently opened the Cool Clothes Closet of South Palm Beach County, a nonprofit boutique where kids can shop without worrying about how much money is in their wallet.
The 69-year-old retiree's main goal is to provide both everyday and professional clothing, at no cost, to kids in foster care, young professionals aging out of the foster care system and kids of returning veterans, who haven't found work yet, she said.
"We are here to give clothes away to kids who need them," Walsh said.
The closet, a storefront, is set up like a boutique with clothes hanging on racks and folded in dressers for both males and females sizes extra small to triple extra large.
Walsh's philanthropic effort started in 2012, when she became a guardian ad litem for children.
So she took classes and went through the certification process after deciding to protect kids in difficult scenarios.
Walsh isn't a stranger to working with kids in rough situations. Before she moved to Florida in 2000, she worked as a court stenographer in Chicago, where she worked in the juvenile court system.
Once she started helping at the West Palm Beach courthouse, she saw how shabbily dressed the kids were when they showed up to court.
"I saw teens coming to court in dirty, ragged clothes," she said.
Even though the courthouse has a closet of professional clothes for kids to change into for court appearances, she said she wanted to help kids outside of the court and its limited hours.
"I knew I wanted to do something in south Palm Beach County," she said. "West Palm Beach can be hard for kids to get to."
To open the Cool Clothes Closet, Walsh said she asked friends and family to donate clothes and help set up the space. She said her 93-year-old mother helps wash and iron donated clothes.
Since no outfit would be complete without the right accessories, there are also shoes, purses and hats available.
The closet, which opened its doors about four months ago, has drawn young customers through word-of-mouth recommendations, and the handful of children assisted so far have been grateful, Walsh said.
"Everybody has found something," she said. "Nobody has gone empty handed."
Roberta Mizrahi, who volunteers at the closet, said the kids are often shy about trying on the clothes, but they perk up with excitement when they try on something they like.
"I think it's wonderful," she said.
There is no limit on how little or how much kids can take, but Walsh said the average is about two shopping bags per person. To get the full boutique experience, Walsh had custom shopping bags made.
"I didn't want people walking out of here with Publix bags," she said.
Now her focus is on finding shoppers and accommodating their needs. The shop doesn't hold regular business hours, since that is when kids are in school. Instead, Walsh schedules one-on-one appointments on weekends or after school.
Walsh said she has a special place in her heart for the older children, who are aging out of the foster care system, and gearing up to start new chapters of their lives as adults. She makes sure the closet is stocked with professional clothing available for any potential job interviews.
"I can remember being their age," she said.
To let people know the boutique is open, she is spending time reaching out to local schools, churches and after-school-care programs.
"We need to connect with children and let them know we are here," she said.