LOWELL — Roughly nine years ago, Catie’s Closet was a single space inside Lowell High where students in need could discretely access donated clothing and toiletries to keep them motivated and in school.
It was just the beginning for the ever-expanding nonprofit named after Catie Bisson, a 2008 Lowell High graduate.
Two years ago, Catie’s Closet distribution sites were available to students inside 37 schools. Marie-Anne Sousa, Bisson’s mother, said the organization is now operating inside 71 schools stretching across the Merrimack Valley and Boston.
When the organization got rolling, founders signed a lease for a 10,000-square-foot distribution center in Dracut. The space is used to gather the donated items before they are distributed to the individual “Closets” inside participating schools. Last month, the nonprofit opened another distribution center in Hyde Park in Boston, while the next distribution center is set to open in Springfield.
The number of children impacted by Catie’s Closet has also seen significant growth. In October, co-founder Mickey Cockrell — Bisson’s aunt — estimated roughly 300,000 students used Catie’s Closet. Today, that number has increased to 420,000 students.
“Catie’s Closet has morphed into a thriving nonprofit bearing (Bisson’s) name,” Sousa said to roughly 375 supporters during the organization’s 2019 Gala at the Andover Country Club on Saturday night.
Bisson died in March 2010 following a battle with a connective tissue disorder called Loeys-Dietz syndrome. During her lifetime, Bisson had 40 surgeries, with her first major heart surgery taking place at age 10.
A few months before she passed away, Sousa found an article in The Sun that focused on two homeless students, chronicling their day.
“What it was like — can’t wash, no clean clothes, no food,” Sousa said. “I lived in Lowell my whole life and I was devastated when I read it.”
Sousa talked about the harsh reality with Bisson, who was aware of the toil of area youth. Bisson shared stories with her family about poverty among Lowell High students that had a lasting impact. Bisson, who aspired to be a writer and editor, did not believe education should be a privilege.
When Bisson passed away, Lowell High officials approached Sousa to see if they would consider a scholarship in Bisson’s name. The thought among her family was a scholarship would be to the benefit of only one student at a time. They wanted to help as many students as they could, while preserving Bisson’s memory.
Catie’s Closet was set up to improve school attendance by providing an in-school resource of clothing and basic necessities for students below the poverty line. The agency also provides emergency packages for those temporarily in need.
The goal of the nonprofit is to combat chronic absences among students, a problem characterized by higher levels of student poverty. Missing school leads to lost instructional time, and over time, the gaps in attendance create difficulties in student learning and decreases academic achievement.
The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent of school days over the course of the year. Numbers from the department show that during the 2015-16 school year, roughly 15.5 percent of students experience chronic absence nationwide, with 13.6 percent in Massachusetts. At Lowell High, that number is 18 percent.
Wendy Crocker-Roberge, principal of Joseph G. Pyne Arts Magnet School in Lowell, said her school is among the first schools to have a Closet. When the Closet was first installed at the school in 2011, their chronic absenteeism was approximately 13 percent, she said. At the end of last year, that number was 7 percent, and just under 6 percent the previous two years.
The rapid growth of the family-run nonprofit appears to be just the beginning. The idea of franchising Catie’s Closet is a consideration, which would allow the idea to be replicated across the nation.
“It’s coming from requests,” Cockrell said. “We haven’t solicited in other parts of the nation, but the requests are pouring in.”
The support is also growing within the community, including from Dr. Wassim Mazraany, chief of surgery at Lowell General Hospital.
Before coming to the U.S. after graduating medical school in 1996, Mazraany grew up poor in Beirut, Lebanon. He didn’t go to his high school graduation because he had not shoes to wear, he recalls. The 47-year-old said he can relate to students who use Catie’s Closet.
“I was reading about Catie’s Closet, about absenteeism and how many kids didn’t want to go to school because they didn’t have clothes or their clothes had holes in them, and how they get bullied,” Mazraany said.
Mazraany, along with Dr. Ana Gunturi, an oncologist at the hospital, asked for contributions to Catie’s Closet through the live “Fund-a-Need” fundraising drive held during the Circle Health Ball for Community Initiatives on March 9 in Boston. The call for donations from the roughly 600 attendees was answered with $70,000 raised — a record for the drive.
“That is huge for us,” Sousa said. “We write grant after grant to open Closets, to buy our vans, to help with our distribution center, but something like this that’s unrestricted to use wherever we need it is a very special gift.”
Sousa pointed out the family-run nonprofit is able to survive due to the donations from the community, which includes roughly 80 to 90 percent of the items used by Catie’s Closet. The organization also uses roughly 330 volunteers, with another 300 expected to be brought in with the Boston-based distribution center now open.
“I think it’s pretty impressive to see the passion that the community displays to help the most disadvantaged children living here,” Cockrell said. “That’s a testament to the area we live in.”
Donations can be dropped off at the Catie’s Closet distribution center at 19 School St., Dracut. For more information about the organization and how to get involved, visit catiescloset.org.
Follow Aaron Curtis on Twitter @aselahcurtis.