In a tiny room tucked behind the far side of the Port Allen Middle School gym, Chase Nyland-Square spends hours each week sorting crowded racks of clothes, putting the best ones forward for his classmates in need of something to wear.
Last year, the eighth-grader started donation drives for gently used clothes when he originated PAMS Pantry, a project that's set up dozens of students with clean and modern clothes when they can’t always get them.
He spends a few hours of the day at the pantry and even worked at the pantry during his summer break for students needing to stop by.
“A lot of kids don’t have a lot of things,” said Nyland-Square, 13. “We don’t want kids to be categorized by things they don’t have.”
When he pitched the idea to his principal, Nyland-Square said, he was worried about students becoming a target for bullying when they don't have access to new clothes or hygiene products.
"I want to make everyone equal," he said.
The needs range from a student seeking a dress so she doesn’t miss the school dance, to the kid who fell in the mud and just needs a fresh shirt to get through the afternoon.
But other times, the pantry has served students during emergencies. In one case, the pantry supplied a student with a new wardrobe after she lost everything in a house fire, Nyland-Square said.
Students can discreetly ask the school receptionist or a teacher they trust to get something from the pantry, often with no other questions asked or expectation that they bring items back.
“We don't want to embarrass the kids, but we want them to have what they need and feel comfortable asking,” said Principal Jessica Major, adding that teachers are on the lookout for kids who need notebooks or clothes.
Major said having a stocked clothing pantry has significantly cut down the time students aren't in class because of a problem with their clothes or because they don't have a notebook. Before opening PAMS Pantry, the school had only a limited stock of clothes with very limited choices.
Technology teacher Michelle Tureau said students have become more comfortable with asking to use the pantry, and it's had a notable impact on their self-esteem.
"It’s helping their confidence in their appearance and how they present themselves in the world," Tureau said. "It levels the playing field in how their perceived."
The pantry is no larger than a doctor’s exam room and is stuffed with rows of shirts, pants, dresses, as well as school supplies and hygiene products that have steadily come in entirely through community donations.
In the works are plans to build more shelving and eventually expand because the pantry is running out of space even though some five to 10 students visit it each week and it's often in short supply of blue polo shirts and tan khakis — the school uniform.
Running the pantry has also inspired Nyland-Square to find other ways to volunteer and connect people needing clothes.
He recently ran a donation drive that saw him gather 600 pairs of socks for Baton Rouge-area homeless shelters, where socks are often in short supply and vital for people who are homeless because they walk a lot.
“I just love helping people,” Nyland-Square said
The youngest of six, he said his mother has been the biggest source of encouraging his volunteer work.
“She’s made me realize some people aren’t as blessed to have things,” Nyland-Square said.