"I picked the name because my vision is for girls to learn how to be themselves," explains Toby Cox, founder of 2bU Clothes Closet, a new nonprofit providing fashion-forward clothing for teenaged girls in need. "Plus I know girls love texting," she said.
Cox spent years working with teenagers at the Mendocino County Youth Project. Over the years, she observed many girls who were ridiculed and ostracized for their appearance. "I thought about this project for a long time. At one point I took some of my own money and bought clothing for a couple of girls, and then began to think I could do this on a larger scale."
Cox did her homework, gathered together like-minded supporters and created a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting young women through the provision of clothing, emotional support and referral to appropriate services when necessary. She has garnered the support of Ruby Slippers, the School Street consignment clothing store, which is providing Cox with clothes, shoes and other accessories geared specifically for teenaged tastes.
"We officially opened our doors on December 1st," explains Cox, as she looks through neatly folded pairs of jeans stacked in cubbies lining the walls. The clothes closet is located on the second floor of the Ukiah United Methodist Church, and resembles nothing short of a teen boutique.
Clothing racks hold sweaters, shirts, skirts, even prom gowns, all meticulously chosen to appeal to the wide range of tastes and styles of today's teen. Purses are hung on the walls. Dozens of pairs of shoes - from Vans to heels - line the floor and are tucked neatly into shoe bags on the wall. A mini-kitchen in the boutique gives Cox the opportunity to make tea for her clients while helping them pick out an outfit or two of their choice.
"The girls are referred to us by schools at this point," says Cox. Girls from 6th grade to high school are eligible for the program. "They fill out an application form, which asks questions about styles of clothing they prefer, and if there are any clothes their parents object to." Parents are required to sign the form, and kids receive a private appointment with Cox at the shop. "Our goal is to make this a personalized experience. Then I can talk with them about other issues besides clothing," she explains.
As a longtime Youth Project employee, Cox is aware of the pressures plaguing young people. Self-esteem is often at the heart of the matter, and Cox observes that having something nice to wear can work wonders for teens trying to grapple with a constellation of serious concerns: family conflicts, peer pressure, drugs, alcohol and abuse.
"Girls love to shop," says Cox. She is providing that "mall" experience, sans the price tag. "All the clothes are free of charge," she explains. Cox currently purchases clothes out of her own pocket, and Ruby Slippers has been "like a miracle," according to Cox, providing many of the mainstay items for the program's startup.
Cox has had half a dozen girls visit the shop in as many days, and all have been grateful. "Nearly every girl revealed how they were mistreated or made fun of because of their clothing - mostly by other girls," Cox explains. She hopes to offer "fun groups" such as knitting and craft classes, or put together field trips to a play or concert. She wants to help young women learn to shop smart - utilizing off-season sales, yard sales and thrift stores. "I want to provide activities that make you dream. If you know you can make your dreams come true, you will strive for them."
Cox is always on the hunt for clothes, and she hopes Ukiah's teens will check their closets and find clothing to donate to the program. "We accept all donations, but our focus is on teen styles," Cox stresses. "Any clothing we don't use is taken to the Senior Center's thrift store." The clothes closet offers new or very gently worn clothing, focusing on quality items girls would be delighted to wear.
The racks are filled with name brands straight from Union Square and the mall. Cox tries to have a little of everything in every size, but currently needs clothing in Junior Plus sizes. She is also looking for winter-weight jackets and shoes.
Cash donations will enable Cox to purchase items specifically requested by teens. "The girls can re-apply after 30 days, so I try to be on the lookout for clothes they need, but they don't always come in." Her objectives: pay the rent and have a broad selection of clothing in all sizes and styles for the girls, all the time.
As a teen, Cox had Youth Project director Jim Levine as a counselor. Later he became her boss, and she gives him credit for her vision. She is currently seeking additional board members. "No matter what size, no matter what they wear, my goal is for the community to help girls feel good about themselves."
Cash donations may be made to: 2bU Clothes Closet, P.O. Box 70, Potter Valley, CA 95469. To drop off donations, phone 707-391-0939.