I spent 10 years working for the Food Bank of Western New York, have been volunteering at St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy since it opened on the East Side of Buffalo 25 years ago and for the past 24 years have helped my family distribute coats during its annual Colvin Cleaners Coats 4 Kids program. These experiences have shown me, first-hand, the reality of poverty in Buffalo, but nothing prepared me for what I witnessed on Saturday, November 9.
It was the first of three free Coats 4 Kids distributions and when I arrived at 8:30 a.m., 90 minutes before the doors would open, the lobby of the Kenmore Knights of Columbus was filled with families. The first family arrived at 6 a.m. When the doors finally opened at 10 a.m. hundreds of families rushed into the gymnasium to select a winter coat from thousands we had displayed from infant to adult sizes along with tables of gloves, scarves, hats, boots and snowsuits.
As my brother, Paul, the President and CEO of the nearly 90 years young family-owned Colvin Cleaners, and his wife, Cyndee, who have been with the program since its inception, and their son, Christopher, Vice President of the company spoke with the guests after they selected their winter items, all they heard was gratitude for this program, which is sponsored by The All State Foundation and supported by WIVB-TV and Towne Square Media of Buffalo.
“We cannot thank the residents of Western New York enough for their generous donations because so many families are in need this year and they were so appreciative to receive a warm coat for our cold winters,” Paul Billoni said. “A majority of these families are refugees who have resettled here but have never experienced our cold winters.”
The result from that opening day was a one-day record of more than 5,200 coats distributed, which left the company with a desperate need for kids’ coats, especially with two remaining free coat distributions remaining. As a result, Colvin Cleaners is again reaching out to the WNY community for donations of gently used kids’ coats along with the option of purchasing coats on-line or making cash donations for the purchase of coats.
“At this point, it’s very likely that we will not have enough coats for every child who comes through the door at our next two distributions. Having a winter coat for every child has always been our mission with this project,” Christopher Billoni said. “We gave away more coats in the first hour last week than we did in three hours last year. And while the families were extremely appreciative, we were overwhelmed by the number of people in this community who came in need of coats and winter accessories.”
The next free Coats 4 Kids distribution will be Saturday, November 23 at True Bethel Baptist Church, 907 East Ferry St., Buffalo 14211 from 10-1 p.m. That will be followed by a final distribution on Saturday, December 7 at The Belle Center, 104 Maryland St., Buffalo 14201. There is limit of one coat per person and proper identification is needed.
Donations of coats, gloves, hats, scarves, snowsuits and boots can be made at Colvin Cleaners, 2375 Elmwood Ave., Kenmore and many of the Allstate Insurance agencies throughout WNY. For a complete listing and addresses of all donation sites, visit www.coats4kidswny.com.
Additionally, for the first time, Colvin Cleaners is accepting cash donations that will be used to purchase new coats. Donations can be made on-line at www.coats4kidswny.com or through the Colvin Cleaners Facebook page. A receipt will be automatically sent to the donor and 100 percent of all donations will be used to purchase coats. Coats 4 Kids is a registered 501c3.
Anyone who would like to order kids’ coats through their favorite on-line store, such as Amazon, Target, Walmart, Kohls, etc., can have them delivered directly to Colvin Cleaners at 2375 Elmwood Ave., Kenmore, N.Y. 14217 and marked Attn: Coats 4 Kids.
During the initial giveaway, those looking for coats came with varying stories, such as Denise Vogt, who lives in North Buffalo. She has seen the Coats 4 Kids commercials on television over the years but never thought she would need the program. Unfortunately, her husband recently passed away and her funds are extremely limited. As the weather got cold all she had was a 10-year-old winter coat with holes in it so she decided to attend the free coat giveaway.
“I am so happy, I am crying,” she said as she tried on several warm, winter coats before selecting one along with gloves and a knit hat.
Musa, an 18-month-old boy from Afghanistan whose parents did not want to be identified, is preparing for his first winter in Buffalo. His dad is a medical student at the University at Buffalo and when Musa’s mom and dad went shopping for winter coats the cost did not fit into their limited budget.
“We saw this on television and we thank you so much. We all found winter coats and we are so appreciative because we cannot do not want to catch a cold,” Musa’s mother said.
Erica Billoni of Colvin Cleaners, added “The freezing cold and snow we are experiencing now reminds us of the reality of our winters. This program is all about every child having a warm coat, gloves, hats and boots. We are confident this community of great neighbors will come through again and help us fill our racks with kids’ coats.”
Charlie Esposito, PGK, who allows the Kenmore K of C’s gymnasium to be used for the program, said Coats 4 Kids fits into the Knights of Columbus’ overall mission of helping others. “Along with that, Paul’s dad and uncles were members here more than 60 years ago and Paul has been a member so working with the Billoni family is something we enjoy doing because we are helping neighbors in need.”
Colvin Cleaners, which cleans, stores and sorts the coats by size at no cost to the program, relies heavily on volunteers for each of its three distributions. Paul’s dad, Anthony, was also a member of the Kenmore Lions Club and for years they have made cash donations to the program. For the past three years its members have volunteered at this distribution.
“It is a heart-warming experience for our members because of the number of families supported through this free distribution of coats,” said Tom Reinagel, the club’s treasurer. “Just hearing the gratitude of these families and children who otherwise would not have a winter coat makes this all so worthwhile for us. Coats 4 Kids is an outstanding program and as you can see today, a much needed one in our community.”
Over the past 23 years, Colvin Cleaners has collected, cleaned, sorted and distributed more than 150,000 coats to kids and families in need throughout WNY for free.