Founded in 1998, Operation Warm distributes winter coats to children across America, protecting their health and safety as well as buoying their spirits. We spoke to executive director Rich Lalley about the organization?s history, mission, and accomplishments.
After reading a newspaper story about children waiting at a bus stop on a cold February day just a mile from his home, retired businessman Dick Sanford was "outraged," Lalley said. "He couldn't understand how children in his community could be without coats. He went to a department store and bought all 58 children's coats in stock" and distributed them through a school, whose superintendent he knew from the Rotary Club. "Dick was blown away by the reaction of the kids and reaction of the parents."
Why a New Coat Means More Than Comfort
"Our motto is 'more than a coat,' and I like to say we bring happiness and warmth to children through a new winter coat," Lalley said. "When they get a brand-new winter coat all their own, it's like Christmas day. You will hear stories of a girl who wears the coat to bed for three weeks, the boy who wants to wear it into April. It's oftentimes the first new piece of clothing the children have received in their lives. They feel better about themselves, and when they feel better about themselves, children perform better in school."
"This Coat Was Made Just for You"
"One of the first coat distributions I was on was at a little afterschool program in [Chicago?s] Rogers Park. A Rotary Club near Rogers Park provides a great deal of support to this little afterschool program called Family Matters. One of the little girls looked at me and said, 'Thank you for the coat. When do I have to give it back?' And we said she could keep it. That's why all our coats have the label 'this coat was made just for you' sewn inside and kids can write their names on it."
Kid-Friendly Coats Made in the United States
Operation Warm distributes hundreds of thousands of new coats around the country each year?so many that it contracts with factories to make coats specifically for it. The organization's coats are brightly colored and have extra-deep pockets and detachable hoods, and they come in sizes 3T to adult large. Although domestic manufacturing tends to be expensive, Lalley says 20% of its coats (about 60,000) are made in a union factory in the United States.
In 2011 The Interrupters documentary introduced audiences to three Chicagoans whose job it was to walk the streets of their neighborhoods mediating violent disputes. They were part of CeaseFire?Chicago's Cure Violence program?working with other Violence Interrupters to mediate potentially lethal conflicts in the city. In 2013, CeaseFire workers mediated nearly 700 high-risk conflicts, often by physically standing between feuding individuals, putting their lives at risk to make their communities safer.
In addition to its work in Chicago, Cure Violence operates programs in five other Illinois cities and 22 cities across the US, and across four countries. The organization's founder, Dr. Gary Slutkin, is an epidemiologist who approaches violence as an infectious disease that should be treated like any other?with scientifically proven methods. Those include detection, intervention, and behavior modification, combined to alter a community's perspective of violence and stop the problem at its source.
Within violence-plagued neighborhoods, the organization's Violence Interrupters?often former violence perpetrators?detect and mediate potentially lethal conflicts. Outreach Workers, meanwhile, work with high-risk individuals to change the way they think about violence and help them improve their lives within the system. On a larger scale, Cure Violence shifts the discourse within whole communities and society at large, emphasizing a health approach to violence instead of punishment.
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