Lisa Ray is one of those people who rarely has much time for herself, especially not in the last almost decade since starting her nonprofit—the Children’s Resource Network.
And she’s OK with her phone always ringing, even as she’s trying to settle into a bubble bath for the evening, make lunch plans with her teenage daughter or plan date night with her husband.
“There are a lot of kids in need and I feel the weight of that need,” Ray said on a recent afternoon from the Teen’s Closet at San Luis Obispo High School, where the room buzzed with talkative teens browsing racks of gently used, fashionable clothes all available to them for free.
Ray founded Children’s Resource Network in August 2009 after the then-recently divorced, single mom of two school-aged kids was asked by her pharmacist if she had any hand-me-down clothes from her children to offer a local mother in need.
Of course, she did. It was a no-brainer, she said.
Within two days of the request, Ray had gathered six trash bags filled with clothes as well as brand-new backpacks stuffed with school supplies for the mothers’ children, just like Ray had purchased for her own kids. When she saw her pharmacist a few weeks later, the woman told her the mother cried when she saw what had been given to her family, Ray said.
“(A) mom wants to provide for the child no matter what,” Ray said about not even thinking twice and filling those first several bags with clothes and other necessities for the family in need. “I am a black-and-white kind of person. I don’t do anything in moderation.”
Ray, a Pismo Beach resident, was the mom of two elementary-aged kids who were growing like weeds at the time, and the pretty Italian, with the wide smile and sparkly eyes, also asked her friends to help out with donations. Little did Ray know that what she started with that one post so many years ago would grow into what it has become today — an organization that has helped thousands and now boasts nine sites between San Luis and Santa Barbara counties.
Since its inception, the Children’s Resource Network has helped more than 20,000 youth on the Central Coast, providing disadvantaged kids and teens with new and gently used clothing, shoes, new books (English and Spanish), school supplies and other items of basic necessity.
Over the years the organization has grown to include Teen’s Closet locations in Arroyo Grande, Nipomo, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria and Lompoc; a Children’s Closet in Arroyo Grande; and a Traveling Children’s Closet, which partners with other nonprofits to provide diapers, clothing, school supplies and other basic necessities to children and parents in need up and down the Central Coast.
“There is obviously a need,” Ray said on that recent afternoon at SLO High School where a Teen’s Closet opened in November 2017. “All you have to do is look around.”
In a time that sometimes seems like a different life to her, Ray had not long before—begrudgingly—opened a Facebook account, where she posted to her page and her 100-plus friends she was seeking clothing donations for a local family. Prior to starting Children’s Resource Network, Ray will be the first to tell you she hadn’t found her passion. Her passion was being a mom to her children, she said.
When she reached out to friends through Facebook to help an unknown family in need, she said 36 of her friends responded immediately to the post and within 48 hours her home was inundated with donations for that first family. Her private life was no longer private. Ray also had tons of leftovers, which she wasn’t going to let go to waste.
“You don’t think about it until it’s brought to your face,” Ray said about the need. “You know there are other families struggling but it doesn’t impact your thought process until it’s there.”
Ray laughs she quickly became known as the “bag lady”at Shell Beach Elementary, with parents often running up to her idling SUV with donations as she was dropping her young son and daughter off for school. Her car was filled to the windows with bags of clothing and other items as she drove away from campus, she said.
Not really knowing what to do with all the donations that kept pour- ing in after her initial social media outreach, Ray said she began taking clothes to the Oceano Resource Center, which also quickly became overwhelmed with used shirts, jeans, shorts, jackets and the like.
“I thought it was going to be a tag you’re it situation,” Ray explained, noting that was far from the case. “It’s not easy taking, sorting and organizing donations. It’s a project, really. Organizing piles of clothing can be catastrophic if you don’t know how to do it. It’s a lot of work.”
Ray decided to organize a back-to-school clothing drive in Oceano with all of the donations that were quickly taking over any empty space in her home. She said within the first hour of the event, which was held in the parking lot of the Oceano Community Center, everything was gone.
Families that showed up after the fact were told to come back to site in a few days and Ray would have clothing for them, she said.
“That was the beginning of making care packages,” she explained. “Everything kind of happened by accident. It was just dealing with the need.”
Ray never expected the Children’s Resource Center to grow to what it has over the years — let alone what it did during those first several months.
“I was thinking it was going to dwindle out,” she added. “I thought, ‘I will keep taking these donations until they dwindle out and that will be it. I will be able to get my life back. That didn’t happen.”
Today, the organization is still operated by a cadre of volunteers, from college students to senior citizens, with help from officers from both the Sheriff’s Department and the California High Patrol—the men and women help deliver care packages and more—and has three board members, just the way Ray wants to keep it, she said.
“I want to make sure the legacy of this organization continues on,” Ray said. “It’s on me. Sometimes it can be a little overwhelming. I just have to find ways. It needs to be in Oxnard, LA. There’s definitely the need.”
For more information about Children’s Resource Network, visit www.childrensresourcenetwork.org or call 805-709-8673.