TORRINGTON — Winter arrived a little earlier than usual this year, and most people found themselves pulling out heavier coats, scarves, gloves or mittens and hats before heading out the door as temperatures dropped below freezing at night and left a furry layer of frost the next morning.
But Warm the Children, founded in 1988 by former Register Citizen publisher Mack Stewart, is already helping families who don’t have the means to provide warm coats and hats for their children. Every year, volunteers take these local families shopping, using money that’s donated from the community, to buy what they need.
For Stewart, the idea started after seeing children shivering at the bus stop as he headed to work in the morning. Many were inadequately clothed, with only sweatshirts to shield them from the snow and cold wind. Stewart thought his newspaper could do something to help. He previously worked for a newspaper in Troy, N.Y., which had a program called Clothe-A-Child, helping the city’s neediest children.
After making a few modifications to that program to fit northwest Connecticut, Warm the Children was born. Then, in 1992, Stewart was sent to Middletown to manage that’s city’s newspaper, the Middletown Press. He brought Warm the Children with him, and it was an immediate and huge success, he said. Today, the program also serves children from Connecticut’s shoreline towns as well as other groups in other states.
Stewart, a native of Fort Worth, Texas, moved to Connecticut in 1986. Since starting Warm the Children, he said, the need for warm clothing for children hasn’t changed — in fact, it increases every year.
In Torrington, the program is handled by FISH/Friends in Service to Humanity of Northwestern Connecticut, Inc., a Torrington-based food, shelter and outreach program for homeless and underserved families, led by Executive Director Deirdre DiCara. Last week, DiCara said the need for volunteers and donations is growing.
“Shoppers are needed, I know that,” Stewart said. “Maura Malo handles all the shoppers for Torrington, and she could use some volunteers.”
In Middletown, referrals come from the social service agencies and schools and the program is handled by the Kiwanis Club. On the Connecticut shoreline, two groups handle Warm the Children referrals. For the towns of Westbrook, Old Saybrook, Lyme and Deep River, the program is run by the Child and Family services of Southeastern Connecticut, while the Madison Rotary Club works with families in Guilford and Madison.
Contact information for each family is given to a Warm The Children coordinator, who is someone appointed by the newspaper or service organization, who then assigns each family to a volunteer shopper. The shopper and family meet at a local store and together select appropriate winter wear for the children. No money changes hands, and the store bills the Warm The Children program for all purchases.
“We get referrals from the shelters, from schools ... each program is unique,” Stewart said. “In Middletown, for example, the elementary and middle schools provide referrals for children, and in Torrington, the names come from various social service agencies and FISH. That way, each of the programs can explain the individual needs of the people they serve.”
A unique part of the Warm the Children model is that all money raised is used to purchase clothing, and no funding is used for administrative costs. Stewart created it that way, to make sure the money was properly used.
“Not very much has changed,” he said. “The needs are the same, although today it’s in greater numbers. Children still need the same basic clothing to wear to school. We started out providing coats and boots, for example, but on one shopping trip I took with a family, the child had no socks or underwear. you have to handle it diplomatically, because the child is embarrassed to be confronted with that fact ... but we are able to help them too.”
Volunteers are a big part of Warm the Children’s success, Stewart said, and not just because they’re buying coats for the kids.
“There’s always a need for the volunteer shoppers to accompany the family,” He said. “Often, when you’re dealing with immigrants and refugee families, for example, you end up helping them with more than just clothing. Last year I took a man and his children from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it became an illustration of how the shopping trip itself can be an opening for greater things.
“They were so nice,” Stewart remembered. “The father was such a sweetheart. After shopping, we had coffee, and he didn’t know about the library and what he could find there. I took him, and got him a library card. I learned later that his wife was learning English through Literacy Volunteers (another volunteer-run organization with tutors). Another opportunity that came was that he didn’t have a car — he didn’t have any way to get around, and a friend of mine in Essex got bikes for dad and all the kids.”
All this began with the Warm the Children shopping trip, Stewart said. “Sometimes, a family needs someone to help them navigate their community, and that happens all the time; the volunteers have wonderful, beautiful stories to tell about the people they helped.”
To date, 30 Warm the Children programs are established in 12 states including Connecticut. Collectively each year, they serve more than 13,000 children with $1 million in new winter clothing and footwear. Stewart wished more newspapers were involved.
“Unfortunately, we’ve lost the support of the newspapers who previously were involved,” Stewart said. “The idea in the beginning was that the newspapers would benefit from the good will this program generates. The newspapers were doing all the administrative work themselves, but over the last few years it’s been difficult to do that. Over time, most of them have turned over the administrative work to a service organization, like the Rotary or Kiwanis clubs. It’s worked very well for (those groups) though.”
For the Torrington Warm the Children, the program is overseen by DiCara at FISH. For information, email email@example.com, Maura Malo firstname.lastname@example.org, and Terri Hodge, email@example.com or call 860-489-4131. Donations can be mailed to Warm the Children, PO Box 1001, Torrington, CT 06790-1001, with checks made payable to Warm the Children.
In Middletown, the program is overseen by the Kiwanis Club and Lynn Baldoni. For information email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations can be mailed to Warm the Children, 505 Main St., 3rd floor, Middletown. CT 06457, with checks made payable to Warm the Children.
For the Madison Rotary Club and Guilford Rotary Club Warm the Children program for Madison and Guilford, contact Ruth Desarbo at 860-664-0888 or email@example.com. Donations can be sent to 57 Nolin Road, Westbrook, CT 06498.
For towns in the Connecticut River Valley and shore area including: Chester, Deep River, Essex, Killingworth, Clinton, Westbrook, Old Saybrook, Lyme and Old Lyme, the program is run by the Child and Family services of Southeastern Connecticut. The contacts are Dick Campbell, firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-304-8267 or 860-388-5644l; and Beebe Miller, email@example.com, 860-767-1028.