Author: Christina Abt
Saturday, December 7th was the last of three free coat giveaways in the 24th Annual Colvin Cleaners Coats 4 Kids Campaign. As with the first two distributions at the Knights of Columbus in Kenmore and the True Bethel Baptist Church on Buffalo’s East Side, a steady stream of families-in-need came through the doors of the final giveaway held at The Belle Center, on Buffalo’s West Side.
Thanks to the generosity of the people of Western New York, sponsorship by The All State Foundation and support from WIVB-TV, Towne Square Media and Fidelis Care, Coats 4 Kids was a tremendous success providing freshly clean coats, hats, scarves and gloves to those in need of warm winter wear. In addition to the three distributions, Colvin Cleaners also provided kid and adult-sized coats to a number of local organizations including Bethesda Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, EPIC, the F.A.T.H.E.R.S. group, Friends of Night People’s (four locations, including the Matt Urban Center, Haven House and Healthy Mom’s) Jewish Family Services, Kenmore Mercy Hospital, Ken-Ton Closet, Ken-Ton Primary Care and St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy. In all, a record 20,700 freshly cleaned coats were given to adults and children from across Western New York who were in need or warm winter wear. That number surpasses the 2018 total of 18,500.
It’s a humbling experience to undertake a distribution of clothing that most consider a necessity, but many in our community cannot afford. That feeling is doubled during the holiday season, when numerous families throughout WNY struggle to put food on the table, no less have money for decorations or gifts for their children.
Yet for those on the receiving end of this campaign, their perspective is one of gratitude, as expressed by some of the individuals and families at the Belle Center who shared the stories that follow.
Naomi is focused as she works her way through the racks and tables of winter wear displayed in the Belle Center gymnasium. Some of that focus has been ingrained through her responsibilities as the mother of four kids, ages 4 through 18. Some is due to the fact that she doesn’t feel well and wants to get done.
She is searching for warm clothing that will not only protect her children, but that they will hopefully be willing to wear. Browsing through a table of scarves she notes that she asked her oldest son to accompany her to help choose the family’s outerwear. His response was that he was too tired. Under her breath, she grumbles, “Yeah, I’m tired too.”
This woman has lived a life that has made her tough. When asked about the pressures of the holidays, Naomi states she will tell her kids that these coats are their Christmas. Any other shopping is not going to happen on their family’s strict budget.
She also clearly declares that she is thankful for the opportunity to obtain the winter wear stacked in her arms and has no problem clothing her family at distributions such as this one. In quiet defiance she adds, “It would be more embarrassing to not have clothes for my children. We mothers do what we have to do and don’t worry about what others think. Other people’s opinions never paid my bills.”
VANESSA, ILANYA AND ADONI
Vanessa spends hours at The Belle Center, searching through aisles of coats and tables of hats, mittens and scarves. She is thoughtful in her selections but faces challenges in keeping them all together, since throughout the process she carries her three-month old daughter, Ilanya, protectively in her arms. Vanessa’s husband, Adoni, sits patiently nearby, acknowledging that the clothing his wife is selecting is essential to their surviving Buffalo’s wintry weather.
This family of three is newly arrived in Western New York, having journeyed from the African Republic of Congo. While they prefer not to have their picture taken, they are willing to share the ways in which they are striving to adapt to the local culture and build better lives than are available in their homeland.
This family of three is newly arrived in Western New York, having journeyed from the African Republic of Congo.
They take turns explaining in halting phrases about their greatest obstacle. Adoni holds a master’s degree in Environmental Law from a French University that is not recognized in the United States. While this capable young man has secured gainful employment, it is not at the level or pay scale equal to his education. That reality is causing him to entertain thoughts of returning to the Congo in a year or so, while Vanessa steadfastly states her desire to stay. She speaks reflectively of her gratitude for the opportunity to choose warm clothes for them all, acknowledging, “It has not been easy to pick up and just leave our homeland to follow the dream of a new life in America.
DARLENE AND GIANNI
One of the most active families at the distribution is one of the most engaging. They are a group that does not follow the practiced pattern of moving through the Belle Center in rank and file order. Rather the adult, clothed in a mint green jacket and a furry white hat, stands like a beacon in the center of the room while six teen-agers orbit around her with their selections of coats and scarves for approval or rejection.
Darlene is the adult in charge and the six teens are her grandchildren. She lives in South Buffalo and has custody of four of the grandkids and regularly takes responsibility for the other two. As a woman on a limited income, she has come to the distribution because her grandchildren need winter clothes and she genuinely appreciates being able to get them all good coats and warm gloves.
In between conferring and ruling on her grandchildren’s selections, Darlene details the ways she manages her family’s situation. She tells her grandkids straight out that they are living on limited funds but makes sure they do a lot of volunteer work together, including caroling at nursing homes during the holidays. She wants them to know what real poverty looks like and to learn to be kind to others, no matter their lot in life.
The longer we chat the more her grandchildren clamor for Darlene’s attention. One in particular is the only girl in the family, Gianni. She’s 15 and attends Emerson Vocational, a name she and Darlene debate for several minutes as the proud grandmother determinedly defines it as a culinary and hospitality school.
Gianni loves to cook and wants to work in the field. It’s a passion she’s inherited from her grandmother who nourishes her six growing teens with home cooked meals. When asked to describe her grandmother, the young girl beams as she reels off a list of adjectives, “…wonderful, amazing, loving…” the moment made perfect as Darlene leans toward her granddaughter and bestows a sweet kiss upon her cheek.
As the final Coats 4 Kids distribution for 2019 winds down with families of all colors, shapes and sizes departing with warm clothes in hand, images of all who came through The Belle Center, those who volunteered and the many who donated and sponsored blend together in providing extra ordinary examples of the meaning of family and caring in our community.
Lead image: Guests prepare to enter The Belle Center | Photos by Christina M. Abt