Neighbors in Uniform
First Free's support of the School Uniform Co-op serves low-income families at local elementary schools.
Jim Killam
April 2, 2024

A long friendship between two neighboring couples also grew into a ministry to families in our community.

Jerry and Carolyn Norquist live across the street from Chuck and Vickie Allton. Both retired couples’ garages are stacked with plastic totes containing more than 1,000 new and gently used clothing items that comprise uniforms for kids at Lewis Lemon Elementary School. The Alltons manage an assortment of yellow, navy and light-blue shirts; the Norquists manage the khaki and navy pants.

It’s all part of the School Uniform Co-op, which operates at four Rockford elementary schools: Ellis, Lewis Lemon, McIntosh and Haskell. The co-op provides low-income families an affordable way to buy uniforms for their kids. The Alltons and Norquists have served together since the program’s beginning about seven years ago. The co-op grew from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church under the leadership of Maureen Hargrove and Stella Schroeder. It also has been a regular recipient of First Free’s Jeremiah Fund grants, given to local nonprofits for whom a First Free member volunteers. (Jerry and Carolyn are longtime First Free members; Chuck and Vicki are in the process of joining.)

Uniforms have helped schools create a better learning environment, especially for at-risk kids.

“It takes an element out of the whole dynamic of class divisions,” Jerry says. “There’s also the gang element where the colors have certain significance. That’s a whole other issue that it neutralizes.”

John and Maureen Hargrove from St. Mark’s purchase the uniforms in bulk from a national supplier. Then the clothes are distributed to lead volunteers for each of the four schools (the Alltons and the Norquists are the lead volunteers for Lewis Lemon). During events like registration or parent-teacher conferences—the volunteers set up a little retail store at school. Shirts cost $3; pants cost $4. Used items are $1 each. If families have used items their kids have outgrown, they can return them for $1 credit.

“Then when we need more. People can also place individual orders through the schools and we’ll take them over to them throughout the school year,” says Chuck, who is the primary contact person with school administration.

When an order comes from the school, Chuck calls Jerry, who quickly finds the right items and heads across the street. Usually, Chuck greets his longtime friend at the door with, “What took you so long?”

“It’s like the Jimmy John’s commercial,” Vickie says with a laugh.

Chuck Allton (left) and Jerry Norquist during a School Uniform Co-op day at Lewis Lemon.

‘Not just a handout’

Money raised for the co-op through donations and grants like First Free’s Jeremiah Fund helps cover the remainder of the uniforms’ cost. The payoff for volunteers comes in other ways.

 “What I get out of it are just the smiles on their faces when they get their new nice, crisp, new uniforms,” Carolyn says.

“And,” Vickie adds, “the parents are happy that they can provide for their child. It’s not just a handout.”

Sometimes, in fact, a special moment occurs.

“One mom had four crinkled dollar bills in her hand.” Vickie says. “She came up and was looking so carefully at what items she could buy. She bought a shirt for $3, and then handed us the dollar left over — which really was a stretch for her — and she said, ‘I want to give this to somebody else who needs it.’

“Later in the day we had a woman come in and she was short a dollar. Well, we paid it forward. So, it’s just such a wonderful thing to see the hands of Christ at work in this.”

Top photo, from left: Vickie and Chuck Allton, Jerry and Carolyn Norquist.

Jim Killam
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.


  1. Avatar

    Wonderful, uplifting story. Thank you. I didn’t know what these two couples do until you wrote about it.

  2. Avatar

    Great article! Thank you, Carolyn and Jerry, Chuck and Vickie.

  3. Avatar

    Such an encouraging ministry by these 2 special couples with servant hearts.

    Welcome Allton’s to First Free!
    Grateful for our friendship!


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