Bush stocks closet for homeless students

Belva Belton, left, and Sandra Cammon, who operate Closet to Closet, receive donations from Leah Branham and her dad Eddie, located at the Learning Center. | Barbara Ball

WINNSBORO – A Ridgeway woman is being heralded as an inspiration for her enduring work to provide resources and support to local students and families in need through Closet to Closet, a program supplying a variety of gently used school uniforms, clothing and shoes for the family, bedding and other household items.

Belva Bush Belton, the registrar and attendance supervisor at Fairfield County School District, initiated the program four years ago when a state law was passed requiring school districts to provide a liaison to identify students experiencing homelessness. Belton and volunteer Sandra Cammon, a bus driver for the school district, operate the Closet, located in the Learning Center at 250 Roosevelt Street (behind the former Fairfield High School).

While the Closet initially served only homeless students, Belton has since opened it to all families in the community who are in need, especially those who are victims of house fires and other crisis events.

During the last four years, Belton has worked tirelessly to reach out to students and families within that scope, but more recently her actions have far surpassed just identifying the need.

“I guess you could say I go above and beyond, but really I do what I know is needed,” Belton stated.

Each year at the start of the new school year, Belton is tasked with identifying any students who qualify as “in need”. Those needs, she said, may include a lack of transportation to or from school, assistance with covering fees for field trips or school supplies, or even purchasing school pictures. Others, she said, may have far greater needs.

“Through the years I have learned that helping students with just their school needs was not nearly enough,” Belton stated.

Belton said she has found that the families of many of the students need food and housing. Most, she said, are in a “doubled-up” situation, where families are living with other families in a home that is not their own, such as a mother and her children moving in with the grandmother. Others, she said, were without any home at all.

“Occasionally, I find families who are living in a vehicle. That’s when I start making emergency calls and get them in a hotel and connect them with groups for food and clothing,” she stated.

Having grown up in Fairfield County herself, Belton said her greatest strength is her connection with the community. She said those connections make resources far more accessible.

In 2011, Belton was awarded the WIS/Mungo Homes Community Builders award after she successfully turned an unused room in the Learning Center into a thrift-type store for her families. Operating every Wednesday, the store, through continuous donations from the community, has grown to now include furniture.

Other organizations have set up an Angel Tree program in which Belton’s students or families can be adopted anonymously by local residents who provide them with Christmas gifts.

That support, Belton said, has helped her continue her efforts year after year. During the 2017-2018 school year, she assisted 114 families. For the 2018-2019 year, she has already helped 104 families with five months still left on the school year.

“It gets tough at times, when the numbers are so high, but when the community joins me in supporting these families, it just reignites my motivation,” she stated.

“It would be impossible for me to do what I do without help. Area businesses, churches, civic organizations and families in the community have helped me in a big way.”

Still, she said her work is never done.

At the end of the school year, Belton will begin contacting those families on her list to determine if they can be removed from her program. It can be the most rewarding time of the year for her, she said, but it can be one of the hardest as she sees some families continuing to struggle with their same vices.

That is where she has laid plans for the second chapter of her work. Even though retirement for her is still years down the road, Belton said she hopes, after retirement, to continue this work by creating a long-term “transitional housing” facility within the area.

“There are some families who find themselves in a tough situation more than once because they have never been taught how to handle finances, or they return to the same temptations that put them in a bad position in the first place. With transitional housing, I would be better able to control their surroundings and prepare them for success,” Belton stated.

Belton said she plans, after her retirement, to seek out grants that would make her transitional housing dream a reality.

“This work is my passion. It has been the most rewarding job I have ever had, and I certainly do not intend on stopping any time soon,” she said.

The Closet is open each Wednesday from 9 – 11:30 AM but also opens up by appointment for those who may be in immediate need. For more information contact Belva Bush Belton at Fairfield County School District Office (803)635-4607.