Climbing stairs at Coeur d’Alene High School, Paula Lyon carried two clothing items she thrust before the first teenage girls in sight.
“Would you wear this?” she asked. A fuchsia jacket won favor. A donated vest, rejected, will go to a thrift store.
Back in the basement, Lyon and Polly Melendez showed off racks of stylish clothes in the newly remodeled Coeur Community Closet. It serves students who often can’t afford new apparel for professional, prom or extra-curricular activities.
As volunteer coordinators of Coeur Closet, the women had logged extra time to prepare for a May 24 Senior Presentation Day.
That’s when they and a handful of other volunteers helped more than 40 students dress for success. The seniors who walked out of the closet’s dressing rooms sported polished outfits and shoes – new or gently used – before those students went before judges to give speeches.
“Senior Presentation Day is a culmination of a whole year’s effort,” said Lyon, who has worked with Melendez since fall 2015 to expand the closet for year-round needs.
On the recent Thursday, the teenagers had choices from a variety of colors and styles, most with sales tags still attached. Many seniors gladly accepted volunteers’ help to finish a tie or match an accessory.
Students keep the items they decide to wear.
Boys often walked in only for a belt or shoes. Many walked out also with a different shirt or pants suggested by volunteers for better fit or style. Klayton Hindberg ended up with a whole new outfit: Blue-and-white pinstriped shirt, gray tie and dark slacks that “fit perfectly,” he said.
“We went through half those shirts to find the right one,” said Hindberg, smiling widely. “I had on a white work shirt I wore at Super 1. They said what I had was good, but they could help make it better.
“I wouldn’t have stood out before. There’s an extra confidence boost because this is all new.”
Senior Leah Warner had brought a black dress from home, but she didn’t have the right shoes. Lyon and Melendez picked out black sandals and a beige cardigan with bell sleeves to complete the look.
“It meant a lot,” Warner said. “Going down there really opens your eyes. I really have a lot of clothes, but I know there are other kids who don’t have a lot. Our school really cares for us.”
Lyon and Melendez are moms with children connected to Coeur d’Alene High School, but they have more in common.
Both endured the death of a son, years apart. They now describe serving to honor them, and they do so with a bond best understood by any parent who lost a child, said Lyon, 56. Her son Corbin, who was born with a brain malformation, died in 1995 at age 3.
Melendez, 54, remembers her son and CHS graduate, Brendan, who died July 9, 2015. He had dealt with depression, and just shy of age 21, took his own life, she said.
Working together on the closet, the women describe joy as they help current students.
“For me, it’s changed my grief in a way I can give back to the community,” Melendez said. “It really has changed me from looking inward to focusing outward. I have been so devastated with my son’s death. This is a way I can give back, and it gives his short life meaning.”
Another reason for Melendez is remembering that Brendan had deep empathy for students who felt out of place at school.
“One of the things he noticed while going to school, and in his depression, he’d say there were children who didn’t have basic needs met, and they were bullied because they weren’t dressed the way they were supposed to be,” Melendez said. “They didn’t have name-brand shoes or whatever.
“He had everything he needed in life. He still suffered from his depression, and he felt he was bullied because he didn’t fit in.”
Lyon knows that she must serve.
“I lost my son, and I’m an eight-year cancer survivor; I get tremendous joy in giving,” she said. “That’s just part of me. It’s just magnified by the grief our family has overcome.”
Lyon began her work with the school closet – then called Viking Vault – in 2012, after a chance encounter with a foster student. She met the young man when both were decorating for a senior prom being held at the Coeur d’Alene Resort.
She thought he worked at the resort, but as they visited, she learned he’d received a scholarship from the school to pay for his prom attendance.
“Fast forward a few hours later, and I came back to the prom to see the kids all dressed up in tuxes and dresses, and I run into this boy,” Lyon said. “He was in that day’s clothes still – black jeans, black tennis shoes, white flannel shirt. He was going to wear that to the prom.”
She walked a few feet out of the resort, stopped and turned around to approach then-CHS assistant principal Troy Schueller. She offered to go in search quickly for a tux, and Schueller agreed.
“I went to the first tux shop, and it was closed,” Lyon said. “I went to a second tux shop; it was closed. So I went to Shopko and found black pants, and a red dress shirt and tie in a box together for like $2. I called a girlfriend to say, ‘I’m dropping off clothes, can you press them?’ ”
A quick stop at Sears yielded a white dress shirt and tie, to give the boy some options. Lyon returned to the resort within 45 minutes and covertly handed items to Schueller. Later, one of Lyon’s friends who helped at prom called her.
“She told me that he was floating on Cloud Nine and looked fabulous. He wore the white shirt with the blue tie and black dress pants.
“The next day, I found out he was a foster kid. He had ridden his bike down to the resort.”
When Schueller, who was CHS’s principal when he died earlier this year, later asked her to turn in receipts, she declined.
“I told him, ‘We’ve never had a son to do this for, so it’s our pleasure.’ I went home and told my husband and he said, ‘That can never happen again.’ I took that as a challenge that we will do this.”
So she volunteered for the closet, calling it Corbin’s Closet for a time, while adding boys’ dress attire.
Melendez knew Lyon through their 19-year-old daughters, who are friends. Brendan also had graduated the same year as Lyon’s other daughter, Courtney.
In 2015, shortly after her son’s death, Melendez came to the school to leave a donation in his honor and saw Lyon’s work on the closet.
Melendez instantly felt drawn to help with the closet. She also wanted to add items for teen girls.
“I do what I do in the closet with the hope that by giving new quality clothing, a bright smile and true compassion for each of these young men and young women, that they will know how important they are and how much they are worthy of love,” Melendez said.
Started in 2006, the earlier Viking Vault previously fit into a single corner room in the basement, mainly with school and hygiene supplies for students in need. Some donated clothes got added.
Recently changing the name to Coeur Closet, the two women asked school officials for needed space.
That upgrade came by fall 2017, with the basement closet now covering three small rooms, taking over storage areas. A large donation through the Excel Foundation, volunteer labor and other donors allowed an extensive remodel with custom shelving and carpeting.
The women painted closet walls the night before new carpets arrived. Its space also now has small, curtained dressing rooms with full-length mirrors.
A new central space holds girls’ clothing – dresses, pencil skirts, blouses, jackets, cardigans, shoes, hosiery and accessories. Another closet space for boys offers of an array of button-up shirts, dress socks, slacks in varying lengths, white undershirts, black or brown loafer shoes, belts and ties.
The area’s smallest room still carries basics from school supplies to uniform materials.
Lyon and Melendez have tapped grants from retailer Kohl’s, and they’ve received other cash donations as word has spread. When asked how much time they devote, Lyon estimated about 40 hours a month each, but they also quickly credit other volunteers and community partners.
Around 2014, Lyon said she asked Terry and Perry Finley of Country Cleaners in Hayden to help out by pressing shirts. The shop owners immediately got behind the project, she said.
“They’ve pressed approximately 250 to 300 items of clothing per year.”
It’s not unusual for the women or other volunteers to help students understand more about how to dress professionally. They’ve coached teen girls that flip-flops don’t work with a skirt. Male students aren’t always aware that a white cotton T-shirt typically is worn under a dress shirt.
“Most of these kids have never worn dress clothes, the boys in particular, because they don’t have role models,” Lyon said.
Outside of volunteering, Lyon is a full-time project manager and geologist in a home office for an engineering firm, and Melendez is a part-time mammographer for Kootenai Outpatient Imaging.
But while working together to buy apparel, sort and organize, they’ve bonded, cried and laughed together. Their friendship has grown. They often finish each other’s sentences.
Overall, they describe mutual delight in seeing excitement in teens over having a new trendy outfit. And they see a growing need. Working with CHS counseling secretary Lori Humphries as a liaison, the women help any student referred to them, often by a school employee.
Lyon and Melendez also coordinate with Hope on the Homefront, a program that supports district students who don’t have stable housing. Sometimes, the women receive a request for a student in immediate need, and one of them will go custom shopping.
Mary Ruch, with Hope on the Homefront, said 432 district students don’t have permanent or secure housing, and about 42 percent of students in all grades qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
“There is such a concerning gap between the haves and the have-nots,” Lyon said.
“We do provide essentials, but the key things are providing professional dress for senior presentations, graduation and interviews – be they for jobs, military or college. The clothing items we have also let kids participate in extra-curricular activity such as band, orchestra, choir, debate and DECA.”
Melendez said they look for the latest teen fashions, which they often buy at various stores on sale at 70 or 80 percent clearance from original prices.
Prowling for deals are Lyon, Melendez, and another volunteer “angel shopper” Ellen McNeely.
“We’ve become extreme sales shoppers,” Lyon said. “We do the majority of our shopping in January, February and March when a majority of clothing we’re looking for is 70, 80, or 90 percent off. And then we apply coupons.”
“I’d say 95 percent of the items we have are purchased,” Lyon said.
They try to have a full range of sizes. Their families often pitch to help them find those stylish clothes.
Lyon and her husband have two daughters, Courtney, 24, and Darby, 19.
An older son in the Melendez family didn’t go to CHS, but daughter Mercedes, 19, is a graduate and son Alex, 16, is enrolled.
Both women say they often get opinions about what to stock by running apparel items by Darby, Mercedes, Alex or other high school students they ask while volunteering at CHS.
“We wanted this to be clothing that these young adults will wear and feel that they fit in with their peers,” Melendez said.
“We don’t want this to be like a thrift store,” Lyon added.
As word has spread about Coeur Closet, financial donations have poured in, Lyon said.
“We need to fundraise at least $10,000 a year to keep it at this level and sustainable,” she said. “We leave Kohl’s with receipts four or five feet long. We’re good stewards of any donations received.”
As coordinators, their reward comes from how students look as they leave the closet, Melendez said.
“It is absolutely amazing when they put on these clothes and realize they are theirs,” she said. “It’s a wonderful pair of shoes, a great pair of slacks and a new crisply ironed shirt, or skirt and blouse.
“They look amazing.”
Added Lyon, “It’s a real transformation. They can go from that invisible kid to a self-confident young adult. They literally walk 6 inches taller and hold their heads high.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.