Jane’s Closet at BVU Seeks to Serve Foster Care Children and Foster Families

Jane's Closet, a space in Swope Hall on BVU's campus, now serves foster families by offering clothing and personal care items free of charge. Jane's Closet is run by members of the Student Association of Social Workers.

A trip to Chicago in the fall of 2019 ignited a passion for service among Buena Vista University’s Student Association of Social Workers (SASW). The result: Jane’s Closet at BVU, which celebrated a ribbon cutting on Wednesday.

Jane’s Closet is a Swope Hall site that contains thousands of pieces of clothing as well as personal care items for foster care children in Buena Vista County. Foster care families in need of items for their children may obtain items from Jane’s Closet free of charge. Visits to Jane’s Closet are by appointment only, as arranged by the Department of Human Services or Lutheran Services of Iowa.

“We took a service trip to Chicago last year and 12 of our students volunteered at an urban garden mission, a Veterans Administration home, and we helped serve 600 people dinner,” says Marian Riner, BVU Assistant Professor of Social Work. “Our SASW students were on fire, excited to figure out ways in which they could serve and volunteer back in Storm Lake. Knowing what service looked like really inspired them.”

“There is no other foster care clothing closet on a campus anywhere else in Iowa. This is unique to BVU. It’s also unique to the region, as the closest foster care clothing closets we have are in Sioux City and Cherokee.”

Marian Riner, Assistant Professor of Social Work

Riner shared thoughts about a clothing closet she helped operate for foster care families in a community school district she previously served.

“The idea spurred on our students as they began forming ideas to design and implement a program to serve people in our community through a social work lens,” Riner continues. “Jane’s Closet would benefit the community as there hasn’t been a foster care resource closet in Storm Lake. There was one in Newell, but it closed, and the folks there said they would share material (donated clothing) with us.”

BVU students raised funds on their own. BVU administrators committed space for the site on the second floor of Swope Hall. BVU committed funding for shelving, while BVU Student Senate contributed money for the purchase of totes.

A member of BVU's Student Association of Social Workers organizes clothing in Jane's Closet.
Buena Vista University student Alexis "Lexie" Wernimont checks clothes in a tote in Jane's Closet, a site organized by BVU's Student Association of Social Workers.

“We figured out ways to make the space most effective for students and foster families using the space,” says Katie Gruhn, a BVU junior from Omaha. “Getting it all in place has been a bit exhausting; seeing it help those in need has been very rewarding.”

Riner’s experience across 24 years in social work has shown that foster parents may not have the exact resources they need for every child placed in their home.

“A foster home might not have clothing for a teen entrusted to their care,” Riner says. “Or, they might not have a crib on hand, or bottles, or diapers. Jane’s Closet is our attempt to reduce stress on foster children and foster families, allowing them a way to find resources that will support the child.”

In many cases, Riner says, children come to a foster family with one change of clothing.

“Foster parents must care for the child’s safety, address the child’s health and emotional issues,” she says. “They must then quickly work to establish enrollment in a school. It can be a very stressful time. If we can remove at least one of those worries by providing a place for clothing and supplies, we want to do that.”

Foster parents Ryan and Kristine Brandenberger, of Storm Lake, toured Jane’s Closet following the ribbon cutting on Wednesday. Both came away extremely impressed with the site and how BVU’s initiative will support the foster care community.

Members of BVU's Student Association of Social Workers hang artwork in Jane's Closet.
Buena Vista University seniors Tillie Heithoff, left, and Brenna Horkey hang pictures before the ribbon cutting that formally hailed the opening of Jane's Closet at BVU. The site contains clothing and personal care items, toys, and more for foster care families in Buena Vista County.

“It is so well organized and orderly,” Ryan Brandenberger says. “Beyond that, we can see how much thought has gone into it. You can see how BVU students, professors, and staff members regard the dignity of a person and the value they have by how everything in Jane’s Closet is presented. It is warm, welcoming, a feeling of acceptance that is so important.”

“I can see a child being excited about coming here,” Kristine Brandenberger adds. “You can use the items that come from here right away. Even the way in which children will carry items out, the people at Jane’s Closet thought about the child and how they will think, ‘These are my new things.’”

Gruhn was contacted last week to help assist a foster family in need after the placement of a child in their care. Gruhn was able to address their needs through Jane’s Closet even before the site hosted a grand opening.

“This is where our social work values and education comes into play in a real-life setting,” says Gruhn. “I did my best to be calm and supportive. Getting down on our hands and knees and talking to younger kids, that’s how we put classroom lessons into practice. We work to become effective communicators in a social work setting.”

“There is no other foster care clothing closet on a campus anywhere else in Iowa,” Riner says. “This is unique to BVU. It’s also unique to the region, as the closest foster care clothing closets we have are in Sioux City, Cherokee, and Spirit Lake.”

The name Jane’s Closet is derived from Jane Addams, who, in 1889, established Hull House, one of the first settlement houses in the US, a Chicago site seen by BVU students and Riner last year. Addams, the first US woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize (1931), was a pioneer in social reforms, an international peace activist, and a feminist. She was also the sister-in-law of BVU President John M. Linn, whose term of service went from 1892-94.

For information on Jane’s Closet, or for those wishing to donate clothing items or make contributions, see the organization’s Facebook page.