Top: Ernie Luise (left), past governor of District 7980 (Connecticut, USA), and members of the Rotary Club of Derby-Shelton, Connecticut, outfit children with new winter coats at a local elementary school in 2008. Photo courtesy of the Rotary Club of Derby-Shelton.
Bottom: A member of the Rotary Club of Woodinville, Washington, USA, puts on a new winter coat for a student. Photo courtesy Joe Truglio
As another U.S. winter approaches, Rotarian Richard Sanford and his Pennsylvania-based nonprofit organization, Operation Warm, are gearing up to provide low-income children with the proper apparel to survive the bitter cold.
In 1998, Sanford, a member of the Rotary Club of Longwood, read a local newspaper article about children suffering in cold weather while waiting for their school bus because they lacked winter coats.
Angered but also inspired, he decided to take action, launching Operation Warm, which works with manufacturers to provide high-quality unused coats to underprivileged children across the United States.
"I couldn't understand how something like this could happen. It broke my heart to see kids freeze because they didn't have warm-enough coats," recalls Sanford, the organization's CEO and chair.
Through funds donated by private and corporate partners, Operation Warm collaborates with manufacturers to develop sizes and styles for boys and girls, then distributes the coats to needy children.
For the organization's first project in 1998, Sanford purchased 58 coats with his own money from a department store. He and members of his Rotary club distributed the coats to children in a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood. Since then, Operation Warm has provided more than 500,000 new coats to children in 26 states.
Rotary continues to play a crucial role in expanding the fundraising for and distribution of coats, says Sanford. About 60 clubs in the United States have worked directly with Operation Warm, providing more than 25,000 new coats to children.
"Rotary has been phenomenal in our success," says Sanford. "This project truly represents what Rotary is all about: assisting the disadvantaged in our communities."
Kim Fremont Fortunato, president of the organization and a member of the Rotary Club of Wilmington, Delaware, says the quality of the coats is a key difference between Operation Warm and many other coat drives.
"Most of the children we help have never owned a new coat," says Fortunato. "We believe it improves their self-esteem. But most important, the coats we distribute will keep kids warm."
Sanford says the organization has found many willing partners because people can relate to the children's plight.
"All around us there are poor children in this country who need assistance," he says. "It's our responsibility to help those who can't help themselves. Seeing the kids' smiles and excitement when they put on their new coats is an incredible experience. This is an enormously powerful project."