The way we provide clothes to Nashville’s neediest has changed, but this could become how Nashville takes on more than just school uniforms.

It’s happened. Whether we’re ready or not, Nashville schools are back in full swing and Fall drinks are up on barista chalkboards. It can be stressful for kids gearing up for the academic year — meeting teachers and classmates, learning a new schedule — but especially challenging for the thousands of Nashville children who will experience homelessness at some point this year. Jami Oakley, founder of UniCycle, is passionate about this problem. Melissa Hood of TEDxNashville caught up with her recently to find out what she’s doing about it.

A Nashville Original: UniCycle

“We started three years ago,” said Oakley. She had read an article about Catherine Knowles, who serves as the Homeless Liaison for Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), and learned just how many children are affected. “I remember thinking, my youngest son is in kindergarten, he has a safe home, he knows where he is going to eat and sleep each night, and sometimes he has hard days too. Some days he gets home and needs to sit on my lap, be comforted, and just recover from his day. The sheer number of children experiencing homelessness in Nashville, not knowing where they’re sleeping that night, or maybe sleeping in shelters or on someone’s couch; I just thought, ‘How much harder must those hard days be for those kids?’”

So Oakley decided to help. She learned that MNPS was offering clothing — they still do in fact — but the offerings were limited. One option for a top, one for bottoms, and not enough for each day of the week. Also, she realized, there were kids who didn’t qualify for help in a homeless program but still were in need. To Oakley that was, as she called it, “low-hanging fruit.” It was something she felt Nashvillians could handle. “It’s so simple,” she said. “People have good hearts: They see our logo, they see the baskets, they get it and they want to help. Maybe to them it’s just a gently worn shirt, but if you’re a child, you feel so much better walking into a classroom looking like everyone else.”

The program started at Percy Priest Elementary School, but is now in 50 schools around Nashville. It’s a straightforward process: A parent brings in an item, either gently used or something they found on sale they wanted to buy; they put it in a basket at a participating school; volunteers at that school will then determine if they need it to restock their “closet” at that particular school, or it goes back to the UniCycle warehouse for later distribution.

“Our ideal [at UniCycle],” Oakley explained, “is that when we give a package to a family it contains say three pairs of shorts, a couple skirts, five tops, maybe a cardigan. We know that we don’t do laundry during the week if we can help it. If you’re facing a hardship, this is even more true.”

Replicable Success

Oakley is proud of what they are accomplishing at UniCycle and wants to focus on doing that one thing extremely well. That said, recently she has considered looking beyond clothing. According to Oakley, the keyword behind UniCycle is “replicable.” To her, there is no reason that every single school in the country doesn’t do this. “There are many people around Nashville doing amazing things, and we should be copying what they’re doing! If someone is having great success with, say, a food pantry, then we should be trying to replicate that program and then get to the point where we say, This is how we handle this problem at MNPS.

Oakley acknowledges that before UniCycle, individual schools and organizations were tackling the issue and doing great things, but the advantage now is that they have a system and it’s working. “The clothes are coming in and going right back out and kids are wearing them,” she said. “Sometimes that complete process happens in one day.” Last year UniCycle gave out 10,000 items. This year, just a few weeks into the 2018 school term, they have already handed out more than 2,000 items.

An Idea Worth Spreading

If Oakley was to stand on the TED stage, her focus wouldn’t be on how to help distribute clothes or sponsor a fundraising campaign. The vision she discovered through the process of creating UniCycle is far grander. “It’s not just about clothes,” she said. “At its heart, what I’ve come up with is a replicable, successful way to fill a need that removes an obstacle to education within a community, [but] with resources that that community already has on hand.” Essentially, she believes that the approach she took could be repeated systematically to eradicate most practical needs for school-age children. The UniCycle model could simply become “the way we do things” as a community; it would be how every school in every town operates each and every day to ensure that all possible obstacles are removed between kids and a successful education. Oakley stresses three principles for success:

First, it must be built on what is Relatable. In the case of clothing, it is common knowledge that everyone needs suitable clothes for school, sometimes uniforms, and the process of “hand-me-downs” is very familiar.

Second, it must be Recognizable. The program should have things like branding, a logo, an obvious collection receptacle.

Third, it must be Replicable. In her words, “gather best practices, a start-up checklist, a brainstorm of ways to get students and parents involved that is already proven, a calendar of ways to advertise the program throughout the year, and you can make it happen anywhere.”

Through this model, Oakley believes that schools wouldn’t need to rely only on occasional fundraisers or a government program — the communities themselves can allocate things like feminine hygiene products, food pantry items, instruments or sports equipment: anything that kids need but may not have the resources to buy.

“I guess the general theme,” said Oakley, “is using systems and sustainable programming to fill ever-present needs in more of a “teach a person to fish” way, rather than one huge fundraiser or collection that does not keep working year round, every year. If the system or program is good, parents and other volunteers or school staff can keep it going without an inordinate amount of effort. And the more we grow programs, the easier they will become as they are more recognizable and trusted by both the folks making the donations and the ones on the receiving end.”

If you would like to learn more, you can visit the UniCycle Facebook page, or you can email unicycle.nashville@gmail.com.

Photos by Kiki Morton Photography, kikimortonphotography.com

Interview by Melissa Hood, Blog Volunteer for TEDxNashville

Article written by Jeremy Snow, Blog Editor for TEDxNashville