Chances are, if you took a wrong turn in the Richardson ISD building on Security Row and walked into the district’s Clothes Closet, you might become a little confused. Instead of offices with desks and computers, you’d see racks filled with stylish clothing, a shoe and accessory department and dressing rooms.

“It actually looks just like a department store,” says neighborhood resident Karen Chapel, who is the Council of PTA’s Clothes Closet chairperson.

And that’s the idea, says Sue Nivin, who is both founder of the Clothes Closet (she started it in 1985) and its current store manager.

“A lot of the children think that it is a store,” she says. “We want them to be able to come and get clothes that look like everybody else so that they can feel like they’re a part of their school.”

Nivin says that when she came up with the idea almost two decades ago, she had no idea it would come so far.

“I thought I would probably be helping a real need,” she says. “But nothing like this.”

Today, the Clothes Closet helps between 800-1,000 RISD students a year, from kindergarten through 12th grade, providing them with a wardrobe tailored for year-round wear: four pairs of long pants, four long-sleeved shirts, four pairs of shorts and four short-sleeved shirts. In addition, each student receives six new pair of underwear, six pair of socks and a new pair of athletic shoes. Students also can receive items such as toiletries, warm-ups for boys and accessories, skirts and dresses for girls, depending on availability and need.

And the clothes aren’t just other people’s outdated throwaways. The Clothes Closet takes attire donated by school and community programs and individuals, and weeds out what families could get at Goodwill, holding on to “gently used” and stylish clothing that won’t set the kids apart from their classmates. Garments deemed unsuitable for the Clothes Closet are then donated to other causes.

“We want them to look just like any kid in high school,” Chapel says, “so we try to have a supply of really nice clothes for these kids.”

To accomplish that, the program utilizes about 80 volunteers, including a team of shoppers who are “astute to what sales may be going on and what our needs are,” Chapel says. The shoppers supplement donated clothes with finds from Target, Old Navy and other stores known for hip clothes at cheaper prices.

“We never buy anything that hasn’t been marked way down,” Nivin says.

To be included in the Clothes Closet program, students have to be identified by school counselors, who report to school chairs, who then report to Chapel. Families in need are encouraged to contact their school counselors if they’d like to take advantage of the program.

Because of the failing economy, this school year has been a particularly big year for the Clothes Closet.

“The community has been wonderful,” Nivin says. “We’ve gotten lots of donations from individuals, from people who have read about us in the paper.”

The program fills a real need in the community, Chapel says. And Nivin adds: “These are children who probably wouldn’t be in school every day, because they wouldn’t have the proper clothes to wear.”

The program is also a popular choice among RISD volunteers, say both women.

“When volunteers leave here, they feel like they have really done something good,” Nivin says. “The children always leave with smiles on their faces, saying thank you and as happy as can be.”