Breaking the Cycle: Building Self-Esteem to Create Better Futures

I was parking on Boulder Street the other day to go and have a coffee with Eric Stephenson and a woman said to me as I went toward the meter, “Make sure you put enough in. They’ll really get you on this street.” I thanked her but then saw she was going into a store that looked like a downtown Plato’s Closet. I was early to meet Eric, so I thought I would at least put a pin in a new spot to shop for clothes, but when I asked Jane what The Hanger was, she changed my life instead of my wardrobe.

Jane Hegstrom and eight of her fellow volunteers from CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of the Pikes Peak Region started The Hanger in April 2013 as a clothing shop where foster kids, ages 12-21, could come to work and shop. The Hanger, a project of CASA’s Milton Foster Children’s Fund committee, also hosts theme nights the first Sunday of every month that offer dinner and life skills. With the help of Jonathan Kamins, the owner of the space where The Hanger resides rent free, Jane is able to provide stylish outfits, a resume option, and a haven to the foster children and alumni of Colorado Springs. What Jane and her fellow advocates do for the community changes lives.

Jane said that when children are little, they receive more attention and aid from the community, but “when you get big like these kids, there’s nothing. . . . They just want to be like any normal kid, and the money just doesn’t trickle down for clothes.”

She went on to say that when these children reach a certain age, most of them go into group homes, but when they do get into foster homes, they are asked to collect all of their belongings into a plastic trash bag, and they are dropped off with that bag as their only property.

“It says, ‘I’m trash. Here I am,’” said Jane.

According to the statistics from the Foster Care Alumni of America*, only 54% of children in the foster care system receive a high school diploma, 84% “became parents,” and 25% reported being homeless “during their transition from care to adulthood.” Additionally, Casey Family Programs** “reports” 15% of foster alumni are arrested after leaving foster care.

But, according to Jane (optimism in motion), trash and statistics are the same. Faceless. But these kids do have faces and names; they have hopes, dreams, futures, and potential, just like any other individual their age. What The Hanger provides through its Saturday and Sunday activities is a chance to build on each of these positive promises for a better future.

When Jane became involved in the Milton Foster Children’s Fund, she helped create grants and raise donations for additional medical care, education and recreational needs not paid for by the system. “To give the kids more normal experiences,” Jane said. This includes karate, equine therapy, science projects, basketball lessons, and also trips to camp. But, for Jane, this wasn’t enough.

Two of her experiences with the Fund birthed the notion for The Hanger.

“Medicaid pays for these big, coke-bottle glasses,” Jane said, and one of the children she helped was this little boy whose glasses caused him to stand out. “He was bullied, which made him get into more trouble, and when he broke his glasses medicaid wouldn’t pay for new ones. So, we raised money to get him one year of contacts, and nobody picked on him anymore.”

In another case, a girl from rural Colorado moved into Colorado Springs. Though the foster system intended for her to attend a large high school, she began to accrue a number of truancies. Once the police tracked the girl down, she admitted that she was ashamed to go to school in the same clothes every day. Jane’s group gave the girl Wal-Mart gift cards to go and buy new clothes. The girl started going to school after that, and she graduated.

“It’s the little things that can change their lives,” Jane said.

What Jane made clear to me is that The Hanger and those involved in its success understand what clothes mean to teens. They understand that nurturing self-esteem is important to help build toward these children/teen’s achievements. Since The Hanger’s shoppers often also act as employees, they are able to build their confidence through the experience and expectation that comes from working. Though any “teen with open cases,” said Jane, “can come in on Saturday and shop,” many will work to earn the additional clothing item that acts as an hourly wage.

Having been a middle school teacher, I, too, understand that self-esteem is incredibly important for achievement, but what Jane explained to me is that the children/teens she works with don’t have the money to pay for nice clothes for court—which can affect the outcome of their cases. Also, after they wish to apply for jobs, the teens need clothes for interviews. The Hanger provides such attire and has a large warehouse full of items not displayed. On the counter is also a “Make a Wish” jar. The children put their names and information on a piece of paper and ask for special items not available in the store. “Nine times out of ten,” Jane said, “The request is for shoes.”

Shoes were, in fact, the reason the “Make a Wish Jar” appeared in the shop. One day, a group of teens came in to The Hanger and one of the girls sat looking at her feet as the rest of her group poured over the clothes and jewelry. Jane asked why she wasn’t shopping with the others, and the girl said she wanted cowboy boots, but the shop didn’t have any. She said the boots would remind her of the home and family she lost and would make her feel more connected to them. Jane put the request out on Facebook, and the next time the girl came in, Jane had a pair of cowboy boots waiting for her. According to those in the girl’s group home, it was the first time they had seen her smile.

This and more of Jane’s stories had a big impact on me and on how I view donations. The Hanger even has an annex basement full of household goods for those who are transitioning out of the system. This made me wonder, why am I not putting my old (and sometimes new) items to better use? When these children/teens leave the system, they could be some of the most informed, seasoned, and useful members of our community. I could be a small part of helping them get there.

What I learned from Jane, however, is that Colorado Springs is no stranger to outreach, and The Hanger has wonderful community support. While most donations are private, Sharon Hoffstetter, who owns Plato’s Closet North, donates to The Hanger, as does Eve Carlson, who owns Eve’s Revolution, and the Colorado Strong Bag Ladies donate as well. The Hanger also has an upcoming event, in conjunction with Kirk and Hill, on September 21st called “Project Funway Fashion Show” that is being held at The Pinery on the Hill. The show will exhibit a combination of clothes from The Hanger and Kirk and Hill.

The larger education I received from Jane is the same one she received during her work with The Hanger: “A lesson I’ve learned from this is that the average person has a good heart, but they need the information on how to help.” I drove up to that curb on that rainy day completely ignorant as well. I had heard of Colorado outreach but never made the effort to find out how I could be a part of it. What does that make me? Lucky. I met Jane, and now my life will never be the same.

IMG_0583* Statistics from 2014; the Foster Care Alumni of America

**Statistics from 2000; Green Book, Casey Family Programs