Everyday Heroes: Dressed in Dignity

Leigh Esau’s Foster Care Closet Provides New Clothes and Other Essentials to Children Entering Foster Care

By Sara Tiano

Jason and Cindy Nabb of Lincoln, Nebraska, were sitting around the dinner table with their six
children when the call came through: two sisters, ages 3 years and 3 months, would be at their
house in 45 minutes. The year was 2014 and, for the Nabbs, this would be the first two children
in foster care they would welcome into their home.

“They came [from their home] with nothing,” said Cindy Nabb. “I’d say they came with the
clothes on their back, but the 3-month-old was in just a diaper.”

But before they even stepped foot in the Nabbs’ home, the caseworkers had made a stop at a
local nonprofit called Foster Care Closet to outfit the girls with five days worth of new clothes.
They were fed dinner there, and the Closet sent them to the Nabbs with diapers, wipes, formula
and a bottle.

Founded by Leigh Esau in 2006, Foster Care Closet is a Nebraska-based nonprofit that
provides clothing to children in foster care, and a comfortable place to wait while a foster home
is found for them. Esau started the organization in 2006 to meet the emergent need of ensuring
children are sent to their new foster home with a basic wardrobe and necessities intact — and to
restore dignity to people going through a fraught transition.

Esau approaches this work with a lifetime of firsthand experience. She entered foster care in
rural Colorado before her first birthday, and until age 7 lived with foster parents who she
described as alcoholic and abusive. More peace and stability came after she was adopted, but
those years in foster care left an indelible mark.

“One of the reasons I’m so passionate about making sure we’re restoring dignity is because I
know what it feels like to have that stripped away from you,” she said.

She knew even as a teen that she wanted to become the foster parent she wished she’d had,
and serve as a positive force in the system where she was so poorly treated. She met her future
partner in that endeavor at the tender age of 15 — her high school sweetheart, Patrick, to whom
she’s now been married nearly 40 years.

The pair married young, and after having two sons, went on to welcome roughly 20 children into
their home through foster care. They ultimately adopted four of those children, now aged 16
through 18, who were unable to reunite with their birth parents.

Her family’s experience serving as foster parents for 13 years gave Esau an even greater
insight into the pressure points in the system, and shined a light on where she could help.

“If you’re lucky, you get a couple of hours notice that you have a sibling strip of three or four
coming in,” she said. “You’re suddenly making three trips to a doctor or therapists’ office a week
you’re working in visitations with family.”

From her years as a foster parent, she learned that those first few hours after a child enters
foster care are crucial, but severely overlooked. Children removed from their home would spend
hours, even overnight, in social workers’ offices or cars, while a foster family was found. They
often arrive at that first foster home with not even a single change of clothes. The lack of this
basic necessity can add shame and discomfort to an already catastrophic moment in a child’s

“I’m here because I want to transform how foster care looks in those immediate hours,” Esau
said. “We want to help you start moving forward as quickly as we can from the traumatic
experience back into a more dignifying experience.”

That dignity she’s striving to restore extends beyond the youth shopping the Closet’s racks —
though meeting their needs are first and foremost. But also restoring dignity to the foster parents
taking on the weighty responsibility of welcoming a child into their home; to the caseworkers
navigating the monumental challenge of separating a family, finding children a safe haven and
helping them transition. And even to the biological parents who are often left wondering if their
beloved children are being well cared for and getting what they need.

The organization partners with the state Division of Children and Family Services to provide the
clothing allotment that state law requires for each child entering foster care — five tops,
bottoms, pairs of socks and sets of underwear, as well as a pair of shoes and a coat. They
collaborate with other community organizations to provide foster families with other necessities,
like car seats and pack and plays.

The Lincoln branch of Foster Care Closet that served the Nabbs is one of four brick-and-mortar
locations across the state. Esau’s team serves the farther reaches of Nebraska through a
mobile closet program, driving a souped up bus full of clothes to foster kids across the in far-
flung communities like Scottsbluff and Sidney.

Grant funding and donors allow the Closet to continue providing clothes to youth throughout
their time in foster care. Foster families can bring children back through the Closet twice a year
to seasonally refresh their wardrobes.

Esau has designed the experience to ensure that getting clothes from her organization is
something both empowering and fun for young people going through difficult times. First, they
make sure young people are allowed to shop for themselves whenever that’s possible, picking
out items that fit their style and spark a bit of joy. This is meant to offer a sense of empowerment
and control in a situation where they may not feel much of that. “In foster care, you lose your
voice right away, all the decisions are made for you,” Esau said. “We want to be about giving
them their voice back.”

Second, she makes sure the Closet carries clothes they actually want to wear. She partners
with wholesale vendors to purchase new, in-season clothes from fashionable brands, rather
than stocking the shelves with donated hand-me-downs or clearance rack, out-of-season styles.
Jason Nabb, who went on to work with Esau at the Closet and served on the board, recalled
hearing teens delight over their shopping finds, discovering their favorite brands were available
to them.

Esau says this is critical to the mission of restoring dignity — showing the kids they deserve to
feel comfortable and proud in their clothes rather than having to make-do with “somebody’s

“We want them to know that they are valuable, just like their peers,” she said.

In 2012, Esau expanded to offer social workers a comfortable space to bring kids in the
immediate hours after removal as a foster home for them is found. Designed to feel like
someone’s living room, with comfy couches, a big screen TV and a farmhouse-style dining
table, the Foster Care Haven is available at the Lincoln and North Platte locations 24/7 for social
workers to bring kids rather than having them spend hours waiting in a cubicle, conference room
or car while prospective caregivers are called.

There’s a kitchen area where simple meals can be put together — Haven staff make sure every
kid who comes through gets a warm meal — a shower they can use to clean up and oversized
bean bag chairs they can rest on if they come in late at night.

While it was important to her to provide a homey, calming waiting space for kids in crisis, Esau
said the Haven was also intended to support social workers as they carry out a brutally hard job.
She believes that creating an environment where kids can be comfortable and cared for while
awaiting a foster home buys social workers time to keep working to locate the best foster family
for them rather than bringing them to the first family that says yes.

In some cases, Esau said, this has meant the difference between splitting up siblings and
spending the extra time to find a home that will welcome them all. Nebraska’s child welfare leadership at the Department of Health and Human Services praised Esau’s organization as “a
great resource for our frontline teammates in the process of identifying a safe placement for the

Esau hopes the help offered by the Foster Care Closet will empower foster families to keep
taking in children, knowing they have support; reduce turnover among caseworkers who get
some breathing room to do their jobs well; and, of course, make the whole process that slightest
bit easier on children.

More than anything, she’d love children and foster families to get the same support wherever
they live. “My big, audacious aspiration is that our model would become a national model,” Esau
said. “So that we can begin to change how it looks and feels as youth are entering care.” This
goal is echoed by the Nabbs, who know firsthand how impactful it was to have that support in
the instant transition of welcoming two new children into their home. The help of the Closet
saved the Nabbs from having to scramble to prepare for their new arrivals, giving them a
chance to talk with their children about the impending change and calmly welcome the girls —
who they ultimately adopted — into their home.

“We could focus on that time getting to know them and making them feel safe and comfortable
in our house rather than worry about making sure we had everything they needed,” Cindy Nabb
said. Learn more about Foster Care Closet and reach Leigh Esau at https://fostercarecloset.org. •

Sara Tiano is Fostering Families Today’s assistant editor and a senior reporter for its sister news
site, The Imprint. Her journalism has been focused on foster care, child welfare and other issues
facing youth and families for more than six years.