Coat program heating up

Published: Monday, November 2, 2009


A woman came to the CityTeam Ministries building at Seventh and Sproul streets in Chester last winter, looking for coats for her three children. The family of four had been living in a car. “That’s not the exception,” said CityTeam Family Services coordinator Laurie Dent. “That’s the norm.” That’s why Operation Warm, the Chadds Ford-based nonprofit that distributes new coats to preschool through elementary-aged children, wants to raise funds for more coats this year.

Having distributed 5,000 coats to Delaware County children last year, the organization wants to raise the needed funds — at $15 per coat — to hand out 6,000 this year. Part of the increase is because of the economic downturn and the demands placed on nonprofits that dispense vital necessities, like CityTeam. “What we do is we make a commitment to people who need help,” said Kwinn Tucker, CityTeam’s director of family services. “Places like Operation Warm give us the opportunity to do that. ”She shared what receiving a new coat from a variety of colors and styles is like for the children. “It means that they can stay warm,” Tucker said. “It means that they can go to school warm. It also gives them a great sense of identity. It’s another opportunity for kids who have less to feel like everyone else.” The effort of raising the needed funds for the project takes a variety of partners.

The local business community has been integral to Operation Warm’s success. Riddle Memorial Hospital is among the donors that raise the needed funds. Every year, it has raised $25,000 toward the costs of providing new coats for children. “We are a hospital that goes above and beyond your acute health care needs to touch families in this personal way that children are warmer, they attend school more regularly and they feel better about themselves,” said Martha Grieco, Riddle Memorial’s community outreach official. She credited the 1,700 hospital employees for their avid participation. That includes the Riddle Holiday Express train expert, who contributes a portion of the donations to the coat program. “Employees of Riddle are some of the most giving people around,” Grieco said. “They have embraced this campaign not only with their dollars, but also their hearts. ”She added that the program has provided more than 22,000 children in Delaware County with new coats over the last five years.

Even Delaware County jurors add to the effort. In 2006, Delaware County Court Administrator Gerald Montella was president of the Delaware County Bar Association and he attended the Wawa kickoff breakfast for Operation Warm. “They show this video that’s just heart-wrenching,” he said. As he sat there, he thought, “This is one of the perfect reasons why we started this jury donation program. It fits perfectly in our mission.’ He returned to the courthouse and talked to his authorities. “Since that date, I think … in excess of $26,000 has been donated by the jurors to Operation Warm,” Montella said. In March 2003, the jury donation program was initiated to allow jurors the option of donating their $9 daily stipends to selected nonprofit organizations. As the jurors enter the jury room, they are given a sheet that explains they can voluntarily designate their funds to be allocated to Operation Warm, the Hero Scholarship, Delaware County Children and Youth Services, the Court-Appointed Special Advocates and the Domestic Abuse Project. Montella said program initiators had hoped to raise a few hundred dollars. “We’re sitting here in 2009 with $400,000,” he said, adding that about 30 percent of the 14,000 to 16,000 jurors at the courthouse each year participate in the program. “Jurors have consistently said, ‘Thanks a lot for letting us do it,’” Montella said. The charities then receive a quarterly check from this program. “It’s been beyond our expectations,” Montella said. “It’s a jewel in the making here. It’s going to help some kids who really need the help, especially in Delaware County.

Operation Warm itself also began with an act of charity. In 1998, Dick Sanford read about children at a bus stop freezing because they did not have coats. He went to a local department store and purchased 58 coats and distributed them in Kennett Square with the assistance of the Longwood Rotary Club. By the end of this year, Operation Warm expects to have provided more than 600,000 new coats to children throughout the United States. “So many times, these children don’t understand because they’ve never had anything new,” Operation Warm President Kim Fortunato said. “They’ve only had hand-me-downs. ”She said she’s had children walk up to her and ask, “Am I allowed to keep this?” Others have told her, “I sleep in my coat because it helps me dream better.” Fortunato said the physical warmth is one aspect of the new coat distribution. It’s about a kids’ esteem,” she said. “No one has ever worn it. It’s that pride and that self-esteem. It’s about not being embarrassed to get on the school bus because you don’t have a coat. ”That also applies to anxiety about going on the playground or to school because of a lack of the needed outerwear.“

‘Beyond warmth, there are a lot of underlying impacts that we create by this gift,” Fortunato said. Theresa, a Ridley Park homemaker and CityTeam volunteer who asked that her last name not be published, can attest to that. Her two grandchildren, her niece and her nephew received coats through Operation Warm last year. “It builds a child’s self-esteem and they want to go to school,” she said. She explained how struggling families like hers have to stretch their means as best they can. In her case, she focuses what she has on food and diapers. “I think parents just do the best they can for the kids,” Theresa said. “A lot of people depend on this program and I’m one of them.” Holding Theresa’s 3-year-old nephew, Jaydon, as he played with her hair recently at CityTeam’s family center, Dent summed up Operation Warm’s impact. “It doesn’t make a little difference,” Dent said. “It makes a huge difference to these moms.’

For a $15 donation, Operation Warm will be able to manufacture a new coat that would retail for $39, largely due to in-kind vendor donations. A tag on the inside left panel of each coat will read, “This coat was made especially for (the child’s name).” Fortunato said the organization would collect funds throughout the end of the year. “The coats will go out before the money goes in,” she said. “We want the coats to be out there.” And, this year will be essential. “There’s so much more need,” Fortunato said. “There’s so much more demand on all of us, the nonprofits, especially those who provide the basic need like food, shelter and clothing. ”No amount is too small.’ “For $15,” Fortunato said, “you know you are putting a new coat on a child.”

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