Guess What These Men Sacrificed to Provide Operation Warm Coats for Kids…

What would you be willing to give up to make a child warm this winter? For five men, the sacrifice was something that was a big part of their identities. “This is who they are,” says Jon Otis, a firefighter with the local 101 and one of the co chairs of the Warm Duluth Beard Challenge, now in its second year.

Brewing up the Challenge

To raise money to purchase brand new winter coats for kids, the local 101 firefighters and the entire community asked five local men to make a sacrifice. Would they be willing to shave off their glorious beards, give up something that kept them warm, in order to bring warmth to children in need?

“This is a big thing to ask,” Otis says. “We are a craft brewing, craft distributing community. Beards are big here.” Each participant would be challenged to reach a monetary bounty for his beard. If the amount was reached, the beard would be shaved completely off at the Warm Duluth Event that took place in October.

“At first they said, ‘Are you crazy? I can’t shave my beard.’ The beards are part of the community, and no one wants to see them go,” Otis says.  Of course when he told the men he wanted to do it in order to raise money for Fire Fighters for Operation Warm, every single one of the men stepped up to the challenge.  The countdown began. Faces were about to get cold.

“They set their own bounties,” Otis says. “We have been really lucky. They all are outstanding individuals.” The Duluth community might say these volunteers were a cut above the rest.

Jealousy and Insults

While Otis wants to make sure he doesn’t get all of the credit, the beard challenge was in fact his idea, perhaps borne, he admits by a little bit of jealousy. Two years ago, Otis was looking in the bathroom mirror, lamenting the fact that he couldn’t grow a beard. “Oh, well I can grow a beard, I mean physically grow a beard,” he is quick to point out.

Remember that beards are big in Duluth, and insinuating that a man cannot produce his own facial hair is a bit of an insult. “It is just that I can’t grow a beard because of my job; it is against regulation.” From a bit of envy into inspiration, the challenge was born.

Beards and Bounties

“I asked what if you could sacrifice your warmth to give a kid a jacket,” Otis says. “They initially set their bounties low, so we encouraged them to set something that is challenging, that they would have to work for.” There were a couple of offers to pay the men not to shave their iconic beards, but the idea of sacrificing a bit of warmth to give warmth to children in need had a sort of poetic resonance with the chairmen.

“Beards are a renewable resource,” Otis says. Although the men would be cold until the beards grew back, the kids they helped with their challenge would be warm for the entire winter with brand new jackets. In Duluth, coats are considered average, but the term “jackets” conveys the warmth that accurately describes the quality of Operation Warm construction.

Duluth Comes Together to Bring Warmth to Kids

The five men chosen by the firefighters were: musician and radio show host, Blake Thomas; Bent Paddle Brewery owner Bryon Tonnis; Alakef Coffee Roaster, Ezra Bennett; St. Louis County Social Worker James Gaylord; and Head Bartender at Vikre Distillery, Nicholas Pascuzzi. After they accepted the challenge they were sent to a professional photographer to get their headshots done. “What happened this year is we did a giant 20 x 30 poster of each of then men,” Otis says. “Then we asked them to carry the posters around with them and talk about the challenge.”

Of course, when it comes to a beard challenge, it takes a village, or in this case a city. They had some outstanding support throughout the community. “All of our members really participate in all of our activities. We couldn’t do this without them,” Otis says. “Our firefighters do the work of fundraising and distributing the jackets, and our business partners and community step up with the money and support. It just been a great collaborative challenge.”

The Results

Anyone who was involved with the Duluth Beard Challenge should be proud. Approximately $10,000 was raised to purchase brand new winter coats through Firefighters for Operation Warm. This allowed the group to provide warmth, and so much more, to approximately 400 children at Piedmont Elementary School. “They have the second highest level of poverty in the area, and they don’t often get selected for projects like this,” Otis says. Extra “jackets” were also distributed to several other deserving groups in the area.

Then men had an extra bit of motivation to meet the challenge in 2015. “We threatened this year that if they only raised half the money, we would shave only have their beard,” Otis says. “That got them motivated.”

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