By Erica Rascón on Jul 31, 2014
The needs of our neighbors aren’t always evident. When Sharon Johnston served as the president of Irving Women’s Network (IWN) from 2004-2006, the organization was shocked to discover that there were over 1,000 homeless teenagers in their town.
Johnston immediately called the school district’s homeless liaison to figure out how such a need could be overlooked. “I discovered that most of them were couch surfing or doubling up – multiple families living in one small home or apartment,” says Johnston. While many families avoid life on the streets, they are still unable to make ends meet. Among other things, the growing children lack adequate clothing. The main place YMCA shoot Johnston, a resourceful leader, quickly gathered a budget from IWN and purchased one hundred pairs of jeans, one hundred T-Shirts and one hundred hoodies. “That’s the unisex thing that everyone is wearing, kind of a uniform for teens,” Johnston laughs. She contacted Project PASS and had the clothing distributed to local teens. A similar system continued for several years.
In 2009, Johnston joined forces with four other women to form Advocates for Homeless Teens. Through a triad partnership with IWN, Stein Mart- Las Colinas and Dignity U Wear (a national charity founded by an Auschwitz survivor) they received 16 commercial-sized boxes of clothing but they had no place to store or distribute the apparel.
The fledgling organization rallied support from local leaders, getting their major breakthrough with the Mayor. Johnston would have been happy with a climate controlled storage unit but through the Mayor’s connections she was given access to a 6,090 square-foot building that was formerly an antiques mall.
“It was a hot mess,” Johnston admits. The hole-pocked walls were covered in multicolored paint, capped off with a retro border. AllState Insurance Corporate office supplied 45 volunteers on Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and began the process of beautifying the premises.
The community’s efforts, which included IWN, Stein Mart, IFD, VHA, IBC, and local contractors, produced The Main Place. This spacious facility complete with luxury finishes, high end store fixtures, storage, office space, and a boutique-inspired storefront was accomplished at no cost. Through this setup, Johnston and her team could be more than clothing distributors. They could engage with the teens and give them superstar treatment.
Youth make an appointment to visit the store with a referral from a social service agency, school counselor or Project PASS. Once they arrive, teens are given a personalized shopping experience complete with a fashion consultant and a local tailor who volunteers to make alterations.
“We don’t say, ‘Here’s a black skirt. You’re done.’ And they have nothing to wear with it. We do whole outfits: bras, panties, tops, bottoms, pantyhose, shoes, socks, jewelry, jackets, etc. Everyone leaves with at least two outfits and sometimes an entire wardrobe, depending on the need,” Johnston says.
the main place If the teen doesn’t feel amazing right away, helpers rush back to the racks for new options. Each session is filled with sincere compliments and edifying feedback. “We’re trying to engage with them, build their self-esteem, build their confidence by giving them trendy, well-fitting clothes,” says Johnston.
In addition to daily wardrobe, The Main Place helps teens get ready for important events such as prom, homecoming, and job interviews. “We’re letting them fit in where they thought they couldn’t and go places they thought they couldn’t go without financial worries,” says Johnston.
Last year, Johnston received The Texas State Board of Education Heroes for Children Award for her work with The Main Place. “I am very excited about this as it shines a spotlight on the invisible tragedy of homelessness in our schools and shows that there are things that can be and are being done to help the kids,” says Johnston. “We have great team leaders and a significant number of passionate and capable volunteers we rely on to help us serve and be successful.”
With Yardi’s generous gift, The Main Place was able to pay utilities and broaden community outreach. “Yardi’s donation helped us touch the lives of over 5000 in our community, 1000’s in Texas, and 1000’s more in Oklahoma, Russia and the Philippines,” says Johnston.
Though The Main Place receives clothing donations and volunteered staff, the organization continually needs support for utilities, insurance, repairs and maintenance, and shipping expenses. To do your part in the fight against homelessness in Irving, make a donation or sign up for one of many volunteer events.