Shop ‘Til You Drop

Imagine a place where there is such overwhelming poverty that children can’t participate in sports because they don’t have shoes. Students can’t go on field trips because they don’t have coats. Many have never shopped for or owned one piece of clothing that they were able to choose. These conditions exist just a short drive from the Triangle, in the Appalachian Mountains, and are what inspired Krissi Fajgenbaum to start the charity organization Teens 2 Teens.

Fajgenbaum just graduated from Ravenscroft in Raleigh, and after watching a 20/20 episode by Diane Sawyer called “Children of the Appalachians,” she was struck by the poverty of her home state.

“I was shocked to see what happens in North Carolina, so close to home,” she said. Fajgenbaum wanted to help other teenagers right here in North Carolina and developed the idea for Teens 2 Teens. Her organization collects donations of gently used clothing and accessories for teens in less fortunate areas. The donations are arranged like a real boutique, with clothes racks and display cases, to give the teens a true shopping experience — possibly their first shopping experience. And in this case everything is free.

Through her personal research and advice from the Appalachian Regional Commission Program manager, Olivia Collier, Fajgenbaum identified Graham County as the poorest county in North Carolina and wanted to direct her first efforts there. She visited Robbinsville High School and met with the guidance counselor and students to discuss the possibility of opening a Teens 2 Teens boutique. They settled on an old storage building on the school’s campus for the shop’s location.

Fajgenbaum initially solicited for donations from Ravenscroft, using campus-wide email, posters and announcements to get the word out. There is a collection box at Ravenscroft at all times, and Fajgenbaum coordinated periodic drives to gather even more donations.

Fajgenbaum delivered the first truckload to Robbinsville High School in the spring of 2009, and when she arrived for opening day there was a sign atop the impromptu boutique naming it Krissi’s Kloset. “I would never have named it after myself,” she said. “That was really sweet.”

The Robbinsville Krissi’s Kloset achieved instant success with more than 5,000 donated articles of clothing and 200 pairs of shoes in just the first delivery. News of her efforts spread around the Triangle, and Fajgenbaum went searching for another boutique location. She partnered with Communities in Schools of the Great Smoky Mountains and opened a second Krissi’s Kloset in Bryson City in November 2010. The Bryson City boutique is located in the town’s historic courthouse and serves students from seven counties. Fajgenbaum says she has no problem keeping the location stocked. There is even a storage room full of donated clothes waiting to be placed on the racks.

One of Fajgenbaum’s most emotional experiences came from helping a homeless teenage girl in Bryson City. Fajgenbaum shopped with the girl to find a completely new outfit. “She couldn’t even look in the mirror she was so overwhelmed,” Fajgenbaum said. “It was unbelievable that she could get really nice clothes for free.”

Fajgenbaum’s efforts have brought her into the national spotlight numerous times. She was featured as a Good Morning America AmeriCAN in 2009 and was awarded the Gold President’s Student Service Award. Most recently Fajgenbaum was interviewed by People magazine for an upcoming issue in an experience she describes as “busy but exciting.”

“The idea that (Teens 2 Teens) could be something national, that people all over the country could read about it — that would be awesome,” Fajgenbaum said. Her hope is that through the magazine’s national exposure other teens will become interested in the project and start chapters of Teens 2 Teens throughout the Appalachian Mountains.

Fajgenbaum is preparing to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a Robertson Scholarship in the fall. The Robertson Scholars program joins UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University in a partnership that will allow Fajgenbaum to attend classes at both schools and participate in multiple leadership, study abroad and summer enrichment opportunities. Fajgenbaum plans to study biomedical engineering and recently completed an internship at Duke Raleigh Hospital with an anesthesiologist.

Fajgenbaum has been busy securing leadership for Teens 2 Teens at Ravenscroft middle and high schools for the upcoming school year. She has also arranged openings of two other chapters of Teens 2 Teens, one at North Raleigh Christian Academy and one at UNC-Pembroke. Fajgenbaum plans to continue to grow Teens 2 Teens during her time at UNC-Chapel Hill and hopes to get support from fellow Robertson Scholars and faculty.

Providing clothes, shoes and accessories to teens in need has given Fajgenbaum a deep appreciation for the things that she has. “It sounds superficial, but (new clothes) really give others the confidence to try something they wouldn’t have otherwise, to keep their heads up at school and look presentable at work,” said Fajgenbaum.

“She just doesn’t go shopping anymore,” said Sylvia Fajgenbaum, Krissi’s mother. “The biggest thing she learned is how much more she has than she needs.”

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