At the heart of Shakopee High School, a boutique flickers awake at 7:30 each morning.
Racks of school supplies, toiletries and secondhand clothes invite teens to grab what they need and go — no questions asked, no money due.
The shop, its mocha-colored walls lined with inspirational quotes, was designed to meet the basic needs of students whose families are unable to afford such essentials as a warm winter coat.
But over time it’s also become a refuge for kids who forget their deodorant during gym class, for boys needing a button-down shirt for a presentation and girls looking to snag a tampon without having to ask a school nurse.
“Being a teenager is hard enough,” said Shawn Hallett, a Shakopee school board member who co-founded the Saber Nation Station shop with a fellow parent last spring. “If there’s something that’s preventing our students from being successful, then we want to remove those barriers.”
From Anoka to Chaska, on-site resource rooms have become a popular option for students to collect what they need without stigmatizing those who walk in. They’re part of a larger effort by districts to meet the collective needs of underprivileged students both in and out of the classroom, said Dave Adney, director of the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals Association.
For years, teachers and counselors have quietly filled the backpacks of needy students with food, or hosted prom dress exchanges to ensure that seniors could attend the big dance regardless of their budget. Suburban school administrators say officials now feel obliged to intervene whenever any kid lacks access to basic personal hygiene products such as toothbrushes and soap.
Shakopee Principal Jeff Pawlicki believes the resource rooms help level the playing field for a school population where 31 percent qualify for free and reduced lunches. It can have a huge effect on behavior, experts say, and even lure embarrassed students back into the school building.
“The research is pretty clear. It leads to higher academic achievement for kids,” Adney said.
A weeklong mission trip to Haiti in the wake of Hurricane Matthew prompted Hallett’s call to service. While traveling with her friend, Kristin Koller, and their sons, the women wondered how they might make a difference at home.
Hallett pitched the concept of a resource room to district administrators after hearing about a young Shakopee student struggling with body odor because he didn’t have the means to buy deodorant.
“That conversation hit my heart,” said Hallett. “I just decided that no child should have an ‘F’ on their transcript because they can’t afford something simple that allows participation.”
For inspiration, Hallett and Koller toured Mayo High School’s S.O.S. room in Rochester, one of the first school resource rooms in the state. The shop, which offers free items to students ranging from cereal to mittens and toilet paper, is staffed by a dozen teens who stock its shelves and write grants to fund it.
“Their job is to make it look like Macy’s,” said Juan Vasquez, program adviser and school social worker at Mayo High. “When you walk inside, you don’t even feel like you’re in a school anymore.”
In Shakopee, Hallett and Koller started small. A rack of coats and sweatshirts under a stairwell soon swelled. In less than a year, the project expanded to a 334-square-foot space outside the cafeteria.
Now bags of donations arrive daily to stock Saber Nation Station with gym and formal wear, undergarments and feminine products.
Teachers sometimes escort kids down to the shop to replace tattered clothes. One teen who owned a single pair of pants was instructed to pick out several new outfits and take them home. The threads gave him confidence and improved his mood, Koller said.
Pawlicki smiles when he sees students head into the store during lunch or between classes. “They don’t feel the need to look over their shoulder. There’s no shame,” he said.
When Hallett and Koller arrive in the morning to straighten up and restock shelves, they typically tally about 50 missing items. Notecards, pajamas, lotion and sneakers walk off the shelves each day — and that’s the way they like it.
LuAnn Walker, a special education teacher, has incorporated the store into her curriculum. She takes students “shopping” there several times a week to learn life skills. Her class also has the job of washing donated clothing.
Down the road, Hallett and Koller hope students will take over most of the daily work. Teens named the store (for the school’s mascot, the saber-tooth tiger) and designed the website and logo — two clasped hands.
On a recent morning, they got emotional explaining their mission to a horde of first-graders whose class donated $300 worth of school supplies to the program.
“Everybody needs help every once in a while, right?” Hallett told the children.
Koller added: “Doing good feels good.”