Anyone who needs clothes for job interview, school can browse the closet
Published in the July 23 – August 5, 2014 issue of Morgan Hill Life
By Robert Airoldi
After just one year from idea to inception, Cecelia’s Closet is now open.
Ensuring that young people have the dignity of nice clothing is just one aspect of the Edward “Boss” Prado Foundation, named after Cecelia Ponzini’s son who died at the age of 29. Ponzini started the foundation in 2013 for young girls at Live Oak and Sobrato high schools to borrow prom dresses so they can go to the big dances in fashionable style. Now, the foundation’s Cecelia’s Closet program provides good-quality clothing for men, women and children in need of attire for their jobs and school. The clothing is provided through referrals from Community Solutions, the Learning and Loving Center and the Morgan Hill Unified School District.
Cecelia’s Closet started in the Ponzini home. It grew and grew, with dozens of people dropping off bags of clothing in front of their home. One day, her husband Gary came home in the dark, tripped and fell over about 20 bags of donated clothes. It was at that point Cecelia decided she needed to find a more permanent home for Cecelia’s Closet.
“I just know people should be able to go to school with dignity,” she said. “It’s important that our youth feel good about themselves, and that means having nice clothes and shoes, especially for kids new in town.”
Now, the closet is located in an old home and renovated garage near the couple’s Ponzini’s Community Garage.
It includes career clothes for those in need of attire for job interviews, everyday clothes, food and hygiene goods. The home’s former car port has been turned into a large closet with literally thousands of items available for girls, boys, men, women and babies, including a stroller. And more donations continue to arrive. In fact, Ponzini has so many clothes, many sit in huge 54-gallon tubs in sheds, labeled and ready to go onto shelves as stock is depleted. Volunteers from Live Oak High School, Sobrato High School, Christopher High School, Gilroy High School and Odyssey Community School sort clothes that come in and iron the career clothes. U-Save Rockery donated the gravel in the front parking area, Home Depot donated the kitchen cabinets that will hold food items and Recology donated a huge dumpster for a month as volunteers cleared the property of debris.
While in grade school, Edward often packed extra food in his lunch for other children he knew were hungry and did not have lunch, Ponzini said. In keeping with his tradition, The Edward “Boss” Prado Foundation established the “No Child Goes Unfed” program in 2011 that is now underway at both Sobrato and Live Oak high schools. Any student who cannot afford lunch, for any reason, can simply go to the lunch line and they will be provided with a free lunch. The program is conducted with the dignity of the student in mind, thus no questions are asked, Ponzini said.
Ponzini who was once on welfare herself and knows the despair that comes with running short of money at the end of the month. Most people will buy food and gas, then comes the hygiene and clothing.
“I wake up every morning and I just need to continue,” she said. “I enjoy it. It keeps my son’s legacy alive and provides for those in need.”
Any high school student or anyone referred can pick out clothes for an interview. For men, it’s a shirt, slacks, tie, jacket and shoes. For girls, it’s a blouse, slacks, blazer, shoes and jewelry. They get to keep the outfit, and if they get the job, they can return and pick out four more outfits so they have a week’s worth of clothing.
At prom time there’s a closet of hundreds of prom dresses for girls who can’t afford one. The only fee is a $15 charge to clean the dress. They only pay if they can afford, otherwise, the foundation picks up the tab. The mother of Tara Romero, who was shot and killed in Morgan Hill two years ago, donated Tara’s prom dress to the cause.
Ponzini has a steady stream of volunteers, including one young man who lived with his mother in a vehicle for 15 months, another who whenever Cecelia took the volunteers to lunch would always take half home to his brother, and two years later he continues the practice.
Much of Ponzini’s drive in building her family’s foundation to help Morgan Hill’s youth comes from the memories of the difficulties of her own childhood and teenage years. She married at age 15 while still in high school and had a difficult relationship with her husband. By age 19, she had four children and was raising them as a single mother.
“I remember when I had nothing,” she said. “I remember being on welfare, on food stamps, and just making it work at the end of the month. I don’t forget where I come from. I don’t forget my mistakes. I don’t forget my past… This is what the foundation is all about — it’s about a vision, a vision of the kids having what they need.”
Morgan Hill Unified School District school board member Claudia Rossi has grown impressed with how Ponzini has taken her hardships and used them to alleviate the difficulties of the students served through the foundation’s various programs.
“She and her considerable network of friends donate high quality dresses for prom knowing that there are young people who can’t possibly afford the garments worn in this coming-of-age tradition,” Rossi said. “She reaches out to students that have been expelled and faced disciplinary actions to consistently reassure them that it is always possible to start anew.”
Even when she had nothing to give, Cecelia Ponzini gave. Now, with the means to give more, she has stepped up her charitable giving. And for those efforts and more, she was named the Morgan Hill Chamber of Commerce’s 2014 Woman of the Year.
“I was a single parent raising four children,” said Ponzini, who married her husband Gary 10 years ago and is now the chief financial officer at Ponzini’s Community Garage on Monterey Road in north Morgan Hill. “I grew up in foster care in Southern California. I always felt nothing was really mine. I never felt stable. I know what it’s like not to have.”
She sits on the United Way Silicon Valley Board of Directors, is an active member of the El Toro Community Advisory Board known as Los Amigos del Toro, and is in this year’s Leadership Morgan Hill class. Most notably, she co-founded the Edward “Boss” Prado Foundation with her husband in honor of her son, who tragically suffered heart failure at the age of 29. Prado left a legacy of generosity, sensitivity and service to others, Ponzini said. When he was in grade school, even though he was on the free lunch program, when he was able to pack a lunch, he would take extra food for his friends.
Morgan Hill Mayor Steve Tate met Ponzini two years ago when she decided to start the foundation and the mayor supported her idea.
“She is such a great inspiration, feeding, clothing and mentoring kids in need, making sure youth and training centers are maintained in bright, welcoming condition, providing or finding support for so many worthwhile causes,” he said. “We are truly blessed to have her and her husband Gary involved in our community.”
For someone who knows what it’s like to be in need, the need to give back comes easy for Ponzini. “I have a lot of people who help me,” she said. “Some I’ve helped in the past, and now they want to help me. I always knew I’d help even more if I could.”