Seventeen-year-old Bishop O'Dowd High School Senior Laura Graham sits atop a miniature textile empire of giving. Since 2011, when she began her nonprofit 1 Closet, she has coordinated the donation of nearly 15,500 garments to underserved teens in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.
During the school year, Oakland resident Graham has made every-other-month deliveries to more than 18 social service organizations, church groups and foster youth programs. In the summers, when the giving heats up as much as the temperature, she's often made twice-a-month deliveries of 25-30 boxes containing roughly 600 items.
The clothing comes from teens at high schools in Lafayette, Walnut Creek, Orinda, Concord, Oakland, Livermore, Danville and San Ramon. Graham coordinates with schools to organize the two-week clothing drives, which average about two per month. The clothing items are nearly new -- in the kind of condition a teen knows another teen would wear -- and frequently bear designer or sought-after labels. She and her mother Sue do all the sorting, boxing, labeling and delivery. They also maintain the website and respond to special needs, like the time Graham personally helped a Richmond student outfit herself for the prom or when a couple whose child had died donated their daughter's wardrobe by bringing it to Graham's home in Oakland.
For all this, she has won awards -- the Jefferson Award, Red Cross Heroes and Violet Richardson Soroptimist Awards, and is the Kohl's Kids Alameda 2013 location winner. She's been interviewed by plenty of media -- Alive East Bay Magazine, Diablo Magazine, KPIX, KTVU, NBC Bay Area, Oakland Magazine, this newspaper and more.
"There are teens who don't have basic clothing," she said recently, during an interview she's politely tucked into her hectic after-school donation pickup schedule. "That can affect their self-esteem, class attendance and friendships. After food and a place to live, it's the most important thing."
The words are spoken like a teenager, but not a clothes-hound. Graham says self-expression can come from a wardrobe, but that one's identity shouldn't. Her 1 Closet work has given her an understanding of why that happens in less-affluent communities.
"Do you know that sometimes, kids don't even go to school? I didn't know there were kids without care. I was selfish and ignorant. I found out they can't focus on the curriculum until their clothes are OK. If you can get a good education, you'll make good life decisions," she says.
Graham says getting her 501c3 nonprofit status has made a big difference. Her first "unofficial" clothing drive happened after her mother struck up a conversation with an American Eagle Apparel store manager during a shopping trip. The employees were enthused about Laura's idea for teens helping teens, but 1 Closet didn't have legal status and store items couldn't be donated. Instead, they organized a donation of their personal items and Graham was on her way.
"With 501c3, more schools want to participate because they recognize it's a real organization. Stores find it more valid and people give nicer clothing because they can write it off as a donation," she explains.
Graham hasn't pushed for retail partnerships because already, the number of garments she receives from schools alone is overwhelming. The categories she always needs more of are large sizes (above 8) for girls and anything for boys.
Usually, Graham doesn't meet the recipients, and says it might "be weird vibes" if they perceived it as "one teenager looking down on another teen."
Such community work has real rewards, she said. And if some people learn that because they have to ... well, that's OK with her.
"My generation has to do community service for school, but maybe that's good. You might be forced to do 60 hours and fall in love with it and keep doing it," she says. "I don't dislike people who are materialistic and get wrapped up in their own lives, but they'd rather help than not help. It's easier to go with the flow than to work hard for authentic happiness. The happiness that comes from helping is different: it's empowering and cool. Do you realize, you can change lives in your spare time? That's impact."
Graham has an inventory of sorted clothes stacked in the former playhouse behind her home. With one eye on college next fall, she's looking for a club or person to take over 1 Closet. After all, she says, this was never her lifelong goal, it was simply a teen, helping other teens.