What initially started as a way to help students at Fort Loudoun Middle School with clothing needs has grown into something bigger.

FLMS teacher Heather Watson, along with former principal and current Loudon Elementary School Principal Christie Amburn, spearheaded the effort for the Clothes Closet six years ago.

“It’s just slowly, slowly grown from a need that we had,” Watson said. “It was volunteers, Ms. Amburn, my mom worked on it the first two or three years — just kind of got it set up and when donations of clothes came in, once people heard what we were doing, she would sort through them. We have our own washer and dryer here so we make sure that everything is clean before we put it out.”

The program grew thanks to gently used clothing donations from the community. A room is now filled with items for both adults and children to the point it looks like a store.

“It’s grown and evolved and we’ve moved it around the building quite a bit,” Jeana Gray, FLMS teacher, said. “We started only opening it to students and families in need. So if one of our students, which had been several had lost their homes in fires, we could let them come in and shop. If kids needed clothes throughout the year, we’ve let them come in and shop. If kids are out of dress code, they get to come in and shop.”

The closet is now open to the public 9 a.m.-noon the fourth Saturday of every month.

Families are given a bag to shop for free and get what they need, no questions asked, Gray said. Since June, 25 families have been served and more than 600 articles of clothing given away.

“It’s families that they’ll say to me, ‘We just need a little extra help. We have means to buy food and we have means to buy this, but it’s difficult to cloth seven children, or it’s difficult to cloth five children’,” Gray said. “It’s I guess what I would call the working poor that are really taking an advantage. One young lady has come every time who works in a day care who needs clothes for kids at the day care. So we feel like that we’re really giving back in that way and that’s what this is here for.”

Hopes are the closet will help “make a connection with our community,” Gray said.

“There’s resources for our families in our community with food, there’s not really anything for clothing articles and things like that,” Patrick Bethel, FLMS principal, said. “So as a struggling family you’re going to put food on the table or provide your child with clothes that are what you would call hip or stylish, you’re going to get food and you’re going to pay the light bill. So this allows them just that other little safety net to say, ‘Hey, I still am providing’.”

Gently used clothing donations are accepted by dropping items off in a bin outside room 32 or by calling the school and taking them to the office.

“The primary goal for this is our students, and we open it to the community, of course, because we feel that there is a need there,” Gray said. “But we want to keep things in here that our students will wear. So we don’t take infants’ clothes, nothing smaller than a child’s 10-12.

“... I think anytime a child is wearing the stylish clothes that maybe they can’t afford, that it gives them more confidence,” she added. “We had one student one time who said, ‘Ms. Gray, all I want is to wear name-brand clothes like the other kids.’ So that is a driving force for me and that is a huge reason why I got involved in the Clothes Closet is because I felt led to provide and to help our kids have clothes like everybody else.”

For more information, call the school at 865-458-2026.

“Our goal is to get more community organizations involved to help us organize, students who need Tennessee Promise hours, community women’s groups that would like to help out, and so we are networking right now to several of them that will come in because we will flip the Clothes Closet several times a year to go along with the season to make sure that we have seasonal clothes for the kids and the community,” Gray said.