When Colleen Thorn’s 18-year-old son, Kody, died in November 2012, she knew she had to do something to honor his memory.

She remembered him as a “giving soul and just a happy person” who had many friends from all walks of life. When his less fortunate friends came over, Kody told them they could take what they needed from his mom’s closet, which was filled with toiletries, from toothbrushes to body wash.

As a self-described “extreme couponer,” Thorn kept the closet stocked. Having the products made the kids feel a bit better about themselves, she and Kody observed.

After Kody, a 2012 Robbinsdale Armstrong High School graduate, died of a drug overdose, Thorn couldn’t stop thinking about the needs of kids like Kody’s friends.

“After he passed, I just thought, ‘What about all these other kids that do not have the means … and they just can’t afford the little things?’” she said.

With that, the idea for the nonprofit Kody’s Closet was born.

Now, there are closets in 13 Minnesota schools, including the first, located at Robbinsdale Armstrong. Last month, Burnsville High School added a closet, and there’s a waiting list of 20 schools that want one, Thorn said.

The closets are actually cabinets, filled with everything from deodorant to lotion, toothpaste to tampons. There are even socks and hair binders, all for students who otherwise couldn’t afford them.

Each closet, located in a nurse’s or counselor’s office, comes stocked with $4,000 worth of products. When supplies run low, Thorn replaces the missing items.

It’s important that kids can access the closets discreetly, said Ariana LaVallee, a family support worker with 360 Communities based at Burnsville High School.

“When I was contacted about Kody’s Closet, I was really excited because it’s another resource I can offer the families and students that I work with,” she said.

An unmet need

When Thorn first approached Robbinsdale Armstrong last March, she asked whether students were actually in need of toiletries. The counselor said, “Oh my gosh, you do not believe the need,” Thorn recalled.

For struggling families, after paying for rent and bills, the items “are like the last thing on their list,” Thorn said.

Teachers have told Thorn about students who won’t raise their hand because they’re not wearing deodorant, or kids who are bullied for having greasy hair.

“My thought is, it’s a simple, everyday need that we often take for granted or overlook,” said LaVallee. “But it … can make such a difference in their everyday lives.”

Being clean, along with looking and smelling good, is important to teens, and it also affects their self-esteem. That’s the nonprofit’s larger goal, Thorn said.

After her first one was successful, Thorn — with the help of her husband, Shane, and six friends — has since set up closets in two elementary schools and Edison High School in Minneapolis, Richfield High School and Robbinsdale Middle School, among others.

Kody’s Closet has held a benefit, a silent auction and a golf tournament in the past 10 months, but most products are donated. There are drop-off sites in several cities.

The organization is awaiting federal tax status as a nonprofit, which will allow them to apply for grants, Thorn said. Another option is for individuals or groups to sponsor a closet.

Through Jan. 25, the 70 chapters of the Minnesota Women of Today are collecting items for Kody’s Closet as part of their annual “Buckets of Sunshine” project. The Burnsville, Eagan and Savage Women of Today chapters are also sponsoring the Burnsville High School closet.

Stacy Pearson, past president of the Savage Women of Today, said that with many service projects, they “walk away and don’t really know how it affected people.” With Kody’s Closet, it’s great “to hear that a real student was touched by what we did and that we were able to make a difference.”

For Thorn, each closet is a tribute to her son. Kody’s friends nicknamed him “Kodiak” because at 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, he was built like a bear. To commemorate Kody, each closet has bear prints on the outside, along with his picture and a mission statement on the inside.

Kody’s death was a shock to those who knew him. Friends say he only tried heroin once, but it was one time too many.

“[All of the closets] mean the world to me,” Thorn said. “When I put a closet in, it has an emotional tie to all of us, to my son, and all kids that can use this to make them feel good.”

To learn more about Kody’s Closet or to get involved, see www.kodyscloset.org.