What Warmth A Coat Can Make

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1/30/2011

Through another season of "Coats for Kids" distributions, Knights provide hope to families in need

A girl and a boy receive new coats at a Knights of Columbus "Coats for Kids" distribution in Bridgeport, Conn.

Nino Giamei was about five minutes from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Worcester, Mass., when his phone rang. It was the state secretary for the Massachusetts State Council. He told Giamei that the 300 coats — which they received, unpacked and set up inside the gymnasium of the Gene DeFeudis Italian American Cultural Center near the church — were waiting to be distributed as planned. But a dozen basketball teams, he added, were also waiting in the gym to play games that were scheduled for the whole day.

"The only communication we have is no communication," Giamei joked as he explained the scheduling mix up at the center. Instead of using the basketball court, Giamei had another idea. They moved the coats downstairs onto a blue-carpeted bocce court.

This winter, Knights of Columbus organized approximately 40 distributions like the one in Worcester in cold-weather cities throughout North America. The "Coats for Kids" initiative is part of the Order's "Help a Child in Need" campaign that started in 2006 to appeal for donations to children's charities during the Christmas season.

From November through early February, Knights will distribute about 15,500 coats in cold-weather cities, including Hartford and New Haven, Conn.; Reno, Nev.; Montreal; Quebec City; Salt Lake City; Alamosa, Colo.; Fort Dodge, Iowa.; and Winnipeg, Manitoba.  Average lows for February in those cities range from five to 24 degrees Fahrenheit, without the wind chill.

Giamei worked with Massachusetts State Secretary Peter Healy and the Supreme Council to purchase the coats at cost and send them to Worcester. As a district deputy of Massachusetts, Giamei contacted 11 nearby councils to get the names of people who needed coats.

Nick Marrier, grand knight of Pope John XXIII Council 5481, was one Knight who got a call. "I thought of a couple of the local parishes we normally work with," said Marrier, 24, who passed along about 10 names.

When the Jan. 2 distribution date arrived, a group of Knights enthusiastically moved the coats downstairs, set them up on fold-out tables and arranged them by size. Two tables full of refreshments were set up near the door, and the wives of a few of the Knights took a seat on a church pew near the distribution area as everyone awaited the children's arrival.

Then, a few minutes past 1 p.m., a group of kids walked through the doors, down the stairs and into the bocce room. A few were wearing old coats, others just sweatshirts. Sitting near the entrance, Michael McManus welcomed the children as they came in and saw their glowing faces as they left wearing new, warm coats.

"It does get cold here, like any other New England city," said McManus, a member of Father Edward T. Connors Council 13674. "It feels good to be able to help those that are maybe a little less fortunate and give them that extra little warmth they may need, whether waiting for the school bus or walking to the store."

As the distribution continued, there was a considerable amount of switching sizes, cajoling kids to look at all the color options, and jovial commentary from Knights and their wives.

"Do we have a size 8 for young ladies?" one Knight yelled out as he tried to approximate the size of a coat for a girl. "Make that a 10, I was just told. Pink? You sure? Purple? We have purple!"

The group of women watched from across the room when they weren't greeting the kids who walked in for coats. "I think it's amazing," one woman said.

"The father right here. He walked in with a sweatshirt on," another said. Even though the distribution was for children, Knights were able to find an extra coat that fit the man who brought his young son.

"Worcester is one of the larger cities in Massachusetts," said Peter Healy, the state secretary who helped organize the distribution. "Like everything with the recession, it's been hit. People don't always necessarily have a big nest egg to lay back on and wait for the jobs to come back, so a lot of these people are hurting."

He added, "If you give them a free coat, they won't have to spend $80 for a new coat. Now they can have that $80 and they can give that to the household budget for food or shoes or clothing. That's one need that's met."

McManus, still sentinel at the door later in the day, was a bit surprised by what transpired in the small basement of the Italian American Cultural Center. "It's been, what one might say, 'an eye-opener' to see just what the outpouring would be for the coats," he said. "It's been nice to see the people that responded to the request that the Knights put out for those in need. And people came in, picked up their coats, and were very thankful."

At the end of the day, a good number of coats were still left on the tables. But the Knights had planned for this. Volunteers put K of C stickers on the coats' plastic wrappers and boxed them up for delivery to parishes throughout the area to ensure that needy children who could not come to the distribution would still face this winter with the warmth of a new coat.

Brian Dowling is the creative and editorial assistant for Columbia magazine.