Thain and his younger brother, Tanner, both high school students, recently entered the storefront at Project 150 Reno empty-handed. They left weighed down with bags of clothes, food, school supplies and hygiene products.
While the pair waited outside for their foster mother to pick them up, they were offered cold drinks and snacks by one of the organization’s volunteers. Thain, who will be a senior in the fall, was sporting his new jacket, despite the summer heat.
“I love this jacket,” he said with a grin.
Project 150 Reno is a nonprofit that offers help to nearly 3,500 homeless, displaced and disadvantaged students in more than 30 high schools in Northern Nevada. Its boutique at 1340 Foster Drive is open year-round, and the store has a lot of satisfied customers who praise the outlet’s services and staff.
“They remembered me,” Thain said. “They’ve got a ton of stuff, like really fancy shoes and a lot of things—coats, hats and school supplies, which is really helpful. They’ve got water bottles. They give you food, snacks and whatnot. They’re super-cool.”
The project began in Las Vegas in December 2011, after a TV news report highlighted 150 homeless students attending Rancho High School. Viewers responded; a network of friends and business colleagues reached out to the high school’s homeless advocate to offer help. A few weeks before Christmas, the group delivered three truckloads of supplies to 17 families. The haul included food, toiletries, school supplies—and, importantly, clothing and shoes. The success of the event, organizers said, made it clear that the service needed to be available all year.
Project 150 started in Southern Nevada to offer free support and services to homeless high school students so they can stay in school and graduate. In 2014, Don Purdue, one of Project 150’s co-founders and a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno, helped gain support for another Project 150 outlet in the Biggest Little City.
For the first several years, Project 150 Reno operated out of storage sheds and warehouses, until the group acquired the Foster Drive space about four years ago. The store is run by unpaid volunteers with backgrounds in education, law enforcement, social work and other fields.
Liz McFarland, who has been with Project 150 Reno from its start, is the volunteer director. “I come from a long line of volunteers,” she said. “My grandma started the first food bank in Stockton, Calif., that still runs today, 60-something years later.”
McFarland, a former newspaper circulation manager, now devotes 40 hours or more a week to volunteering.
“I like to spend my time with organizations and volunteer opportunities that can help people help themselves,” she said.
When kids come to Project 150 Reno, they are assigned a volunteer to assist them as they shop for a variety of items, including clothing, food, school supplies, hygiene products and other staples of student life. “We even have silly things, like this LED ring light,” said McFarland. “For, like, being a podcast star.”
At Project 150 Reno, the customers are treated as equals and with respect, volunteers said.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like or what language you speak; everyone is treated the same way,” said Suzanne Bartone, a retired clinical social worker and volunteer. “A lot of people just always write them off, being teenagers, but here, they get a lot of respect.”
Bartone intended only to drop off some clothes when she visited the store four years ago. McFarland gave her a tour; she met some customers—and she was hooked.
“You directly see the impact of helping,” she said. “You get to interact with the kids. You see them when they come in. You see their needs. You talk to them, and you’re able to give them what they need, and they leave happy. It’s a direct impact.”
Kalena, an incoming high school freshman, recently made her second trip to the boutique.
“Everyone’s really helpful,” she said.
Her family had been struggling with its finances, she said, and Project 150 has helped a lot. As Kalena shopped, another volunteer, an ex-Drug Enforcement Administration agent, assisted a Spanish-speaking girl while she tried on new shoes.
“A lot of our kids are wearing shoes three sizes too small, or they’ve never had a shoe that really fit,” McFarland said. “So they don’t know that shoes aren’t supposed to always hurt.”
Meanwhile, in the back of the boutique, Tanner, an incoming junior, browsed a rack of men’s shirts. He said the store has a wide selection of clothing and that the staff is “easygoing and nice.” Volunteers said that along with multiple bags of clothes and other items, most customers leave the boutique feeling confident and “seen.”
Trevor Hutton, a Washoe County school attendance officer, said he often drives kids to the boutique as a reward for good behavior. He’s seen Project 150’s impact first-hand.
“I remember a couple kids in particular, seeing them on a Monday coming to school with a new sweater or whatever and seeing their confidence,” Hutton said. “Chin up. Smile on the face. It’s crazy how a sweater can do that.”
The boost in their self-image creates a “domino effect,” he said, in that students feel more comfortable to be outgoing and make new friends.
Kristen Boucher, the dean and data coach at Encompass Academy in Reno, said the project makes a big difference for many students.
“They’re so grateful,” she said. “The clothes and the food and everything is obviously great, but the time and attention that these people take to talk to them and make sure that they’re taken care of and make sure that they’re OK—the students just light up after coming here.”
Project 150 Reno relies on donations from various organizations, warehouses and screen printers. Clothing, toiletries, non-perishable food and school supplies are always needed and can be brought to 1340 Foster Drive, where the items are inspected and sorted.
“We pretty much touch every item,” McFarland said. “And we might take away 50% of it and share it with veterans or the women’s shelter or other places, because it might be more like the underwear style that a mom would like to wear as opposed to a teenage girl, or (more appropriate) for a veteran than a teen boy.”
Monetary donations may be made at www.project150reno.org.
“We love money, because we can see when sports bras are on sale for $3, or we can get coats out of season at Costco, we really stretch funds to the fullest,” McFarland said.
Other ways to get involved include spreading the word about Project 150 via social media, hosting a donation drive or volunteering at the boutique.
Last year, McFarland noted, Project 150 Reno had twice as many patrons than previous annual averages. The need is growing, she said, but the store’s space isn’t.
“If anyone wants to give us $1 million for a building, I’m sure we could fill it with stuff,” McFarland said. “But we’re hoping that we don’t need that, and we can use this space to keep on helping kids.”