Jessica’s Closet: A Legacy of Giving
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Providing access to relevant and stylish clothing for youth experiencing homelessness is no small matter. In Medford, Oregon, Sharilyn and Christina Cano honor their daughter and sister Jessica’s legacy of concern for youth who are homeless. In partnership with the Maslow Project, they have created Jessica’s Closet to offer up-to-date clothing for young people in need and to carry on Jessica’s mission of care and concern for young people.
Sharilyn Cano is the mother of six children and the co-founder of Jessica’s Closet, an organization providing a careful selection of clothing for youth who face homelessness in Medford, Oregon. Jessica’s Closet works in close collaboration with the Maslow Project to ensure that young people living in poverty, on the streets, or doubled up have access to clothing that they can feel good wearing.
The importance of relevant clothing is no small matter to Sharilyn and her daughter Christina, who is also very involved with Jessica’s Closet. They want to help remove the barriers associated with the stigma of being homeless. “I have raised six kids and watched a lot of kids grow up. I listen to what matters to them. Sometimes what matters to them may seem superficial, but if you are in high school, wearing the wrong clothes can get you ostracized and labeled.”
Through their partnership with the Maslow Project, Sharilyn and Christina are connected to a broad spectrum of youth with high needs. “These kids have enough obstacles already. We don’t want them to look in the mirror and not feel good about themselves. Who wants to be out of style? There is already so much on their plate and this is just one simple way that we can help. Our clothes are youthful, stylish, and very lightly used or are brand new. I do the mending myself. We make sure that everything is washed and pressed,” explains Christina.
Clothes are organized by gender and size. The long-term goal for Jessica’s Closet is to create a retail store experience, so that young people can feel like they just went shopping at a boutique for free. Christina has found a three-way retail mirror that she is saving for the day that this dream becomes a reality.
Jessica’s Closet is the living legacy of Sharilyn’s daughter Jessica, who died in a car accident in January 2009 at the age 24. Jessica was a pre-school teacher at the Ashland YMCA. “Before I lost her, I hadn’t realized the extent to which she was always helping people who were homeless or struggling,” shares Sharilyn.
Christina explains that her sister Jessica did not like to see other people suffer. Jessica felt an inner obligation to do what she could to make things better. “When she died,” explains Christina, “people came to us, called us, and sent us letters to tell us how Jessica changed their lives.”
“Jessica saw herself as fortunate and she gave from the heart. She saw herself as someone who had a lot, who had something to spare,” says Sharilyn. Stories of Jessica’s willingness to share her own resources have filled the Cano household since her death. There are stories of young women who were invited to choose clothes from her closet, and of a boy who she took home to feed and let him shower. Jessica paid people’s electric bills, took care of their children, and gave away her possessions. Jessica is also described by her mother as a regular teenager. “She was perfectly imperfect. She smoked, drank, and went dancing and sometimes she wouldn’t come home until midnight. She was not a saint. She didn’t walk on water,” explains Sharilyn.
Sharilyn and Christina decided to start Jessica’s Closet after her death, as a way to cope with their own feelings about her death and to give something back. “Jessica was a clothes horse. She has more clothes than anyone I have ever seen. So, we were sitting there with all these clothes and all of these feelings and wondering what we were going to do with everything,” explains Christina.
When they started getting phone calls from people who knew Jessica as the girl who would give away her clothes, they decided that they wanted to do something with a purpose. Months before, Sharilyn had learned about the Maslow Project and wanted to work with the program. After a three-hour marathon meeting, they formed a partnership and agreed to distribute clothes for The Maslow Project.
On May 1st, 2009, Jessica’s birthday, the Cano family held an event co-sponsored by Old Navy, and collected over 12,000 pieces of donated clothing. They brought along all the clothes from Jessica’s closet. “It was a life-changing day,” explains Christina. At the event, two young girls approached them. One of the girls asked if all of the clothes were from Jessica’s closet. Christina was surprised that the young girl knew about Jessica’s closet, but was even more surprised to learn that the young girl was wearing a shirt that had once belonged to Jessica. Christina later learned that the young girl lives in a hotel with her mother.
Today, Jessica’s closet has taken on a life of its own. Old Navy employees donate their own clothing to Jessica’s closet on a regular basis, church groups have organized fundraisers for Jessica’s closet, and everybody seems to want to help.
“It is really important to me to get beyond the ‘something is better than nothing’ mentality about donated clothing. Children don’t choose homelessness. What we need to keep in mind is that kids deserve more. If we keep this idea in our hearts—that kids deserve more—we can do no wrong,” offers Christina.
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