Three Rivers Middle School (TRMS) recently opened the “Kindness Kloset” and now every student has access to school supplies and personal items, all for free.
Computer education teacher Josh Bell is the brains behind the operation but tells Watershed Voice this concept was sparked by one of his students. Bell said he watched a student bring large packs of gum to school every day for two years, and pass them out to his peers. “That’s pretty generous of him. I was inspired by that. It got me thinking if there was anything I could do, and I thought about the needs of these kids.” The idea began on a small-scale with Bell simply bringing spare technology from home, and setting it out on a table for the students. Since then, the project has taken off.
After gaining approval from TRMS Principal Jason Bingaman, Bell had the green light to begin building the “Kindness Kloset” in November 2022. Bell is now distributing free items to students over 50 times a week. What started as just a single table has now evolved into several packed with books, jewelry, water bottles, toiletries, calculators, and much more. Because there was already a “resource closet” being run by science teacher Stacie LaRoy offering items like clothing and feminine hygiene products on a more discreet basis, Bell wanted the Kindness Kloset to operate more like a free store, and carry a wide variety of supplies.
Bell’s project requires no special criteria for students to have access to these no-cost items. “There should be no excuse for these kids to not have school supplies, and almost everything I have is brand new.” What is most popular among students, says Bell, are technology items like CD players, speakers, or headphones. A surprising twist was when Bell discovered that while most students do utilize the “Kloset” for circumstantial reasons, many also use it as a gifting store for others. “They want to give things to other people. I had someone donate tons of jewelry, it was brand new stuff, and they would take them and give them to their mom, their sister, or their girlfriend.” Items of interest this week available in the store are a comforter, two L.L. Bean coats, and a Vera Bradley backpack.
Bell tells Watershed Voice he has not personally purchased more than $10 worth of supplies for the Kindness Kloset, and the tables have been full every day since the project’s debut in November. Even so, there are still many materials needed for students such as socks, gloves, hats, lotion, shampoo, and toiletries. Donations of clear, plastic backpacks would also be greatly appreciated, as it is now a safety-requirement for students needing to carry books, folders, and a Chromebook between classes. Bell does limit the amount of clothing he accepts due to those being available with LaRoy’s own resource closet, but he welcomes any Three Rivers Wildcat apparel because, as he says, “Kids want to represent their school. The kids love Three Rivers gear.”
Humble and reluctant to take credit for the concept of the “Kloset,” Bell cited his need for action being driven by his faith and doing as Jesus said, “whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.” This brought him to realize his influence with his students, combined with donations from the community, could bring about real change in the school and the kids’ lives. “It’s not something I want to be recognized for; I’m just organizing other people’s generosity. I really just put it on a table and let the kids go.”
Creating a Facebook page for the Kindness Kloset to communicate the needs and desires of the shop over the months, Bell has welcomed donations from several area-organizations such as Bair Lake Bible Camp and the Three Rivers Bible Church. The community has been supportive, as well, with Bell reporting he averages over five donations a week. Even though his passion and concern for his students is evident by the creation of the Kindness Kloset, Bell maintains a balance of meekness and ability to see the big picture saying, “I don’t feel like they couldn’t live without me. You want your kids to have the things they enjoy and have a good life. So why not give these things to the people that need them?”
Those wishing to make donations can do so by calling the Three Rivers Middle School at (269) 273-1130 and asking to speak to Josh Bell. Other options are to like and follow the Kindness Kloset on Facebook, and sending a Facebook message to Josh Bell requesting a drop-off time. He asks that if you leave items for the free store to please leave a note saying who made the donation, so he knows who to thank for their generosity. The Kindness Kloset is open for students Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 7:35 to 7:46 a.m.
Beca Welty is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice.