Operation Warm: More than a Coat

IMG_4027bsmallWalking up to the playground at Park Orchard Elementary was walking into chaos, which is true of any good elementary school playground. But besides the kids running around enjoying their friends and the open space, today also included an ambulance and two firetrucks. Kids made a line winding along the fence to get the chance to climb into the ambulance, walk through it and jump out the IMG_3953bsmallside door. Once they saw a news camera crew was also present, the excitement level only increased.

For the fifth year, the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority have had warm, winter coats made and have given them to all of the kindergartners at a Title 1 school. Park Orchard Elementary in Kent was the lucky school this October sixth.

All over the country the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) have been participating in this event they call Operation Warm.

IMG_3960bsmall“While driving on the streets of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, Dick Sanford encountered a sight that eventually spurred the formation of Operation Warm: a group of children – coatless – huddled at a bus stop on a cold December morning in 1998. The sight led Dick to drive to a local department store and purchase every coat in stock. With the help of his local rotary club, those 58 coats were given directly to kids in need.

This gesture of kindness inspired the creation of Operation Warm. The first 58 coats wereIMG_3958bsmall purchased by one man, but the millions of coats since then have been a result of communities united, working together to improve the livelihood of children living in poverty.”- http://www.operationwarm.org

It’s known that kids do better in school when they don’t have to worry about their basic needs. The firefighters pick a school that has a high percentage of children utilizing the free or reduced lunch program. But kids are not singled out, every single child enrolled in kindergarten gets to pick out their favorite color coat.

“Some of these kids are homeless,” said firefighter Janette Williams, “now they can come to school warm and since all the kids have them, they don’t feel different, at least with this.”

IMG_3954bsmallThe kids can have up to 18 different style and color combinations to pick from. Historically, the new Operation Warm coats have been made overseas. Then they adopted the USA-Made coat program.

“We realized several years ago that we had a chance to support both children in need and American jobs by sourcing and manufacturing coats right here in the United States…In 2012, at the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) general convention, a resolution was passed to partner with Operation Warm… It also outlined a USA-Made initiative, branded and designed specifically for IAFF affiliates, with the goal of bringing jobs back to North America. From there, our USA-Made coat program was born.” -www.operationwarm.orgIMG_3964bsmall

Williams said the manufacturer of the coats also make military uniforms, so they are well made. They are seeing them show up as hand-me downs now at schools when they visit. The coats are paid for by the firefighters themselves and this year the Kent Police Department also chipped in.

Usually the Police and Firefighters only see kids when bad things happen. This sunnyIMG_3967bsmall morning, the fire chief, on duty and off duty firefighters were all in the playground, passing out coats to the three kindergarten classes at Park Orchard.

“Now the kids can see us in a good light, they can ask questions and learn not to be scared of us,” said Williams. “They know we are here for them.”

Their motto is “Operation Warm: More Than a Coat.”

“A new winter coat can be more than a coat. We believe it helps build self esteem and tells a child, ‘You’re worth it.’ A brand new winter coat can inspire pride and joy within a child, while also increasing peer acceptance. A brand new winter coat may be small enough to wrap around a waist, but it’s big enough to empower a child through increased self-esteem and confidence.” -www.operationwarm.org

IMG_4003bsmallThe kids are sized by “hands up (to check the sleeve length) and hug yourself (to check for tightness).”

“It’s better if they are bigger versus smaller,” said the firefighter training the others before the classes came out. This year’s group of kids was smaller than usual. They usually pass out about 150 coats at a school but this day they were only expecting to pass out 74.

Quietly the kindergartners came out to the playground with their teachers and formed two lines. Then they took turns going up to a firefighter to pick out a coat. Once they were done, they would run to the firetrucks to see them without the bigger kids around hogging the trucks.IMG_4017bsmall

When all of the children had received a coat, the teachers started to wrangle three classes worth of five- year- olds into the play field to take a photo. It was truly a sight to see, 74 little people running around like battery bunnies in overdrive, all in bran new, puffy, bright winter coats. I asked one little boy how he liked his new coat and he said, “Good! It’s purple!”

IMG_4025bsmallI have no idea how they did it, but the teachers got all of the kids to stand still for a photo with the firefighters before they headed back to class. As the happy kids ran past him, one of the firefighters was laughing, looked at me and said “We love this!” with a huge grin.

If you would like to donate to this cause, you can here: https://www.operationwarm.org/get-involved/give/

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