Dream Closet adapts to COVID-19

Hannah Hippensteel, features writer

The combination of colder weather and the ongoing pandemic can create a struggle for the Winona citizen and student population to find warm clothes in a cost-effective way.

At Winona State University, an organization called Dream Closet Winona hosts two free clothing drive events yearly—one in fall semester and one in spring semester.

The fall semester event, held on Saturday, Nov. 7,  was modified to align with COVID-19 regulations. The most notable shift was the change from a traditional, in-person shopping event to a drive-up event where people could experience the clothing drive in a safer style.

The drive was held in the parking lot of Lake Lodge Recreation Center.

Dream Closet is always open to people from Winona State University and the larger Winona community.

In order for the free shopping event to take place, Dream Closet-affiliated donation boxes are located throughout the campus and city. This year, the campus boxes on Main Campus were located in Somsen Hall, Maxwell Hall, the Science Laboratory Center (SLC) and Kryzsko Commons.

There was also a box located in  Education Village.

Within the Winona community, there were donation boxes placed at HyVee, Midtown Foods and Bluff Country Co-Op.

As each semesterly event nears, donations are gathered from each box and sorted.

Dr. Tammy Swenson Lepper, a communication studies professor at Winona State, is serving her first semester as the advisor of Dream Closet Winona.

Swenson Lepper was asked by Stella Luikart, a fourth-year communication studies major and co-president of the organization, to advise them.

Swenson Lepper said she accepted the position due to prior interactions with Luikart in class.

“[Luikart] told me how important Dream Closet was to a large group of students. I didn’t want all of Stella and her teammates’ previous work to come to an unceremonious end, just because they didn’t have an advisor,” Swenson Lepper said. “I strongly believe that college should help young adults find their place in the broader community through service opportunities, internships and engaged learning, and this is an excellent service opportunity for students of all ages.” 

According to a Facebook post published to the Dream Closet Winona page on Friday, Nov. 6, Luikart has been involved with the organization for five semesters. She has held the leadership position of Team-Lead for four of those five semesters.

In the post, Luikart also mentioned why she loved the Dream Closet program.

“My favorite part about being involved in Dream Closet is that I am able to do my part in the Winona community each semester & connect with other students who have the same passion for serving others as me,” Luikart said.

Lexi Laurent, a third-year movement science major, is the other co-team lead for Dream Closet.

2020 marks the third semester of Dream Closet involvement for Laurent and a first time in a leadership role; previously, Laurent was an event volunteer.

Before Laurent worked with Luikart as the co-team lead, she helped the organization with her attendance of clothing-sorting events and supervision of an assigned donation box.

According to Laurent, her favorite part of Dream Closet is the community impact, despite shifts in procedure due to COVID.

“We had to wear gloves and masks, which made for a different experience. But it was still super cool. The event also went smoother than anticipated,” Laurent said.

With this, Laurent mentioned the different areas of consideration for this year’s Dream Closet, such as where to host the event, how to safely space out cars and volunteers and how to best receive feedback from the community for future execution of Dream Closet events.

Laurent attended her first Dream Closet drive last year where she estimates 300 people shopped.

Through the shifts in the drive-up event, Laurent said about 100 community members shopped at the fall 2020 event.

She also said there were roughly 30 student volunteers helping to facilitate the directional flow of traffic and shopping experience in the Lake Lodge parking lot on Nov. 7.

When asked how she thought the spring drive would take place, Laurent said she thought the event would still be successful no matter how it was presented, as long as it was accessible to people who needed it. However, there were some things she would like to change.

“I want the shoppers to have more of an experience. Weather depending, I’d like for it to be outside again. Overall, if we had to have it the same way, I’d like to amplify the event,” Laurent said.

Diana Zargarian, a third-year nursing student, said her first experience with Dream Closet was in 2019.

She attended with a friend who also enjoys thrifting and fashion on a budget.

“The event was a great time with good people,” Zargarian said.

Through campus signage and word-of-mouth, Zargarian was made aware that the fall semester Dream Closet event would occur in compliance of COVID protocols.

“I think everyone would do a good job with social distancing and wearing masks. But for my own sake, I’d prefer to stay home,” Zargarian said.

The importance of events like Dream Closet during a crisis like COVID, according to Zargarian, is the community initiative.

“I wish we could see more events like this. We’re in struggling times, so it’s important for people to have places to go for reliable clothing, especially in a needs-based community like Winona,” Zargarian said