For the past year, Hope Schneider has had a hard time figuring out what to wear.
Like any teen, she wants fashionable, flattering apparel. Finding the right fit is more difficult for her than for most because she needs clothing to go under and over the brace she wears for about 18 hours each day to treat her scoliosis.
Particularly challenging while shopping in retail stores is finding tank tops that will shield her skin from the hard brace. Some have armholes that are too large, resulting in abrasions where the brace touches Schneider’s skin. Some are made of material that is quickly punctured by the brace. Others are made of thicker material that don’t let her skin breathe. And the rest, she said, are just plain unattractive.
“There was nothing really out there. There was this shirt, but it was ugly and it didn’t keep you cool,” the 13-year-old said. Going without an undershirt isn’t an option, she added.
“Otherwise, you get skin rashes and you can’t wear the brace altogether,” she said.
Frustrated, the Long Grove teen wondered aloud one day why there wasn’t a company that made apparel for kids with scoliosis.
When her mom, Dahlia Ronen, heard the question, she felt the same way.
“God knows how much money I spent on tank tops,” Ronen said with a laugh.
An idea is born
A former corporate lawyer, Ronen left the field to raise her daughters. She said she had recently talked with a friend about collaborating on a project they would both find meaningful when Hope’s comment sparked an idea.
She mentioned to her friend, fashion designer Limor Shoval, her idea to start a clothing company especially for girls with scoliosis.
“She texted me back immediately and said, ‘Done,’” Ronen said.
The two teamed with Buffalo Grove resident Simona Citron to launch Hope’s Closet, an online store that sells fashionable yet practical apparel designed to fit under a brace.
Their first product, a tank top called Hope’s Embrace, made its debut in September. The shirt is made from lightweight polyester with a double layer of material under the arms. It comes in two modern styles, both featuring neutral fabrics accented with colorful stitching.
Since then, life has been easier for both Schneider and Ronen.
“I’ve washed Hope’s Hope’s Embrace at least 20 times and she has not had one abrasion,” Ronen said.
“It looks like new every time,” she added. “I wish I had shirts that held up as well.”
Schneider is happy with the addition to her wardrobe, too.
“I’ve been a lot cooler during the day, so I’ve been able to wear my brace more,” she said. “I don’t have anymore abrasions under my arms. All my friends think it’s really fashionable. I feel more fashionable.”
She thinks Hope’s Closet will make a difference in the lives of others with scoliosis, too.
“Some of my friends, it’s sad, but they don’t wear their brace. Part of it could be because they don’t have the clothing to go under it and over it. I think this will make them more confident and more compliant," she said.
Hope’s Embrace sells for $30 each or in packs of three for $81 or five for $130. A portion of the proceeds benefits the National Scoliosis Foundation.
“We get to do a lot of good with this company,” Ronen said.
Ronen and her partners have the skill sets needed to cover all of the key leadership roles for the business. Ronen serves as chief executive officer and general counsel, Shoval is president and designer, and Citron, an accountant with an MBA, is chief financial officer and director of marketing and social media.
The three have something else in common. All had relatives who were victims of the Holocaust, and they feel strongly about preventing bullying, of which children with scoliosis can be targets.
“This was a natural fit for me,” said Citron, who also serves on the board of directors of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. “I couldn’t be more proud of the work we’re doing.”
Schneider, who was diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis in 2010, only wore a night brace for the first year. Last summer, doctors determined that the curvature of her spine had worsened, and she was fitted with her day brace.
It hasn’t been easy, said Schneider, who is now an eighth-grader at Woodlawn Middle School.
“It was hard. I think I cried the first day,” she said.
“Some of my ‘friends’ have been kind of mean about it," she added. "One of my friends was like, ‘Do you think people just like you because you have scoliosis and they feel sorry for you?’”
“There were girls at Woodlawn who talked behind her back because she had to wear the same shirts over and over again,” Ronen said.
“There’s such a stigma attached to a scoliosis diagnosis for these kids. They all want to hide the brace,” she added.
Now, however, Schneider is proud to tell her story and play a role in helping others who are being treated for scoliosis.
Her image and her story are featured on the Hope’s Closet website, where she also wrote about her difficulties finding trendy clothes to wear over her brace.
“I can’t find anything that I actually like. All I can find are loose, baggy sweatshirts that aren’t really in style,” she explained.
That problem will soon also be alleviated. Hope’s Closet will introduce its first shirt designed to fit over a brace by the end of the year. The company is also holding a design contest for youths. The winning entry will be produced on a future shirt.
All in the family
Hope, her mother said, “is the heart, soul and face" of the company, but Hope’s Closet is truly a family affair. Hope’s sister, 11-year-old Bella, helped name the thread colors, such as “Rockin’ Raspberry,” that accent the tank tops. She also helped name the sizes, which range from “mini” (extra small) to “super fun” (large).
“It’s my mom’s company and I want to help her as much as I can. It goes around my sister, so I feel like I want to do stuff to help her, too,” explained the sixth-grader, who plans to raise awareness about scoliosis and money for related causes for her bat mitzvah project next year.
If all goes well, Hope could be done with treatment by then. She's diligently wearing her brace and doing special exercises with the help of her dad, osteopathic doctor David Schneider.
She’ll find out in December whether she’ll need to continue to wear the brace, and whether she’ll need corrective surgery. Either way, she said she plans to remain involved with Hope’s Closet and with Curvy Girls, a support group for scoliosis patients. She leads the monthly meetings of the Chicagoland chapter.
“Finding more people that have it, it makes you feel like you’re not alone,” she said.
Ronen, too, said she will stay involved for years to come. Once Hope’s Closet turns a profit, she said she hopes to launch a foundation that will help fund scoliosis treatments and provide screenings in schools.