Operation Warm puts coats on kids’ backs at the Kroc Center

More than 150 local children, with moms and grandmas in tow, arrived at the Salvation Army’s Kroc Community Center on Thursday to pick up a brand new coat. 

Despite the chilly temperatures that day, many of the kids had sweatshirts slung over the backs of their chairs, instead of jackets.

An organization known as Operation Warm is on a mission to change that. Founded over a decade ago, it’s an organization that distributes brand-new winter coats to children throughout the country whose families could not otherwise afford them.

The waiting families filled one large room and spilled out into the adjacent lobby. Mothers held babies, kids clambered on their chairs and Salvation Army staffers passed out miniature candy-canes.

In a very brief reception, staffers thanked Operation Warm founder and chairman Dick Sanford, who, in turn, introduced another prominent do-gooder.

“We have a national treasure in this room,” he said of Mrs. J. Maxwell “Betty” Moran, the philanthropist who made the day’s massive donation possible. Moran kicked off the giving by helping a delighted little girl into a new powder-pink jacket.

Racks of colorful, crisp and fluffy coats stood ready on one side of the room, sized for children from kindergarten through fifth grade. Families waited patiently on long lines as Salvation Army staffers addressed children one at a time, helping them try on the coats for size.

“We never want to see a child without a coat on in the wintertime,” said Sanford.  

How it started 

The idea for his charity was sparked by an article Sanford once read in a Kennett Square newspaper that said ‘local children were freezing.’ 

He couldn’t believe that there were children in the United States going to school in the winter without a coat. He wanted to help, and marched to a local store, where he immediately purchased all of the elementary-sized coats they had. Those 58 coats became Operation Warm’s inaugural donation, when Sanford headed to his church to find out how to connect the coats with families who needed them.

He remembers that it was a snowy night when families arrived to collect the coats, and many of the children were in t-shirts. “Kids were crying, moms were crying,” he said. One little girl received her own new coat with something like awe.

“Can I keep this?” she asked incredulously.

From 58 to 1-million

Now in its 12th year, Operation Warm distributes coats in 33 states. This year, they expect to provide 220,000 children with winter coats, 12,000 of those through Salvation Army partnerships. One month ago in Chicago, Operation Warm distributed 10,000 coats in a single day through a partnership with the Housing Authority. This season, Operation Warm will be giving away its one-millionth coat.

Sanford feels strongly about all of the ways that something as simple as a coat can impact a child’s life, beyond protecting them from the cold.  He noted that sometimes, children in poverty – many of whom rely on school programs for their meals – aren’t able to go to school in the winter for lack of a coat. Others face teasing in tattered coats that are too small. He also wants every child to have access to the simple joy of playing in the snow, something no one can do without a coat.

The actual price of Operation Warm’s coats starts at $60 – much more than many poor families could afford, especially with multiple children. Sanford says he doesn’t want any parent to have to choose between paying the electric bill and buying winter coats.

A ‘responsibility to help’

Some critics of his mission to provide brand new coats have pointed out that hand-me-down coats would work just as well, and be much cheaper. Sanford answers that it’s important for all children to have garments of good quality – not old coats with arms that are too short or zippers that are broken.

“Not one child in this room asked to be here,” he added. Children who live in poverty “have no voice of their own. Why don’t they deserve the same things that are exciting to all children, like a good-quality, brand-new item to wear?” He also scoffs at critics who suggest that poor families simply wait until after the holidays to purchase coats, when they go on sale. This year, with its October snowstorm, was a perfect example of why that is not a viable option. The weather turns cold long before January.

At the Kroc Center, coat recipients Zaiyana and Nafir were happily resplendent in their new pink and olive-green coats. Mother Lacretia Bailey zipped them up tight.

“It has a big impact,” said grandmother Sharon Bailey, who has six grandchildren in all, two more of whom were still in line for their coats. “A lot of people can’t buy coats for their kids.”

“You can always find someone less advantaged than yourself,” said Sanford. “It’s our responsibility to help.”

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