February 25, 2020

In St. Lawrence County, the People Project makes a winter wish comes true

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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Caption: Special delivery to Potsdam Central School! Left to right, People Project members Nicole Conant of SUNY Potsdam; Laurell Brault of Potsdam Snack Pack Program; retired Ogdensburg teacher Mary Wills; Lawrence Ave School principal Jennifer Gray; and parent Jennifer Hernandez. Photo provided.

St. Lawrence County has logged temperatures as low as -17 degrees this winter. Still, hundreds of youngsters have been trudging to and from school with no coats. For many of those students, that travesty is about to change.

Retired Ogdensburg teacher Mary Wills made a wish last fall and put it in writing. She wished simply that these freezing, underdressed kids could get new coats.

Through The People Project, a union-backed coalition of community partners in the county, Wills sent the request to Operation Warm, which is a nonprofit group that can make these things happen. In a county with dire poverty, she thought her wish might come true, but the waiting list had 150,000 names on it.

Winter came, and her wish went the way that many wishes do – blowing somewhere in the cold, icy wind. Kids kept walking through snow and sleet and bone-chilling rain.

This past week, however, Wills was out doing errands when she got a phone call from workers who were at her house to pick up her old hot water heater on the front porch. They said they couldn’t get to the heater because it was blocked by stacks of giant cardboard cases. Wills got home and found cases piled higher than many snow banks in the area.

Tearing open boxes, she found fluffy mounds of winter coats in blue, black, pink, bright green, camouflage, and a host of other colors, delivered by Operation Warm, which had received an unexpected donation. The next day, 15 more cases arrived for a total of 200 coats in sizes 5/6 to adult large.

Wills got busy.

“I sent out an email, and within an hour, I had 12 districts reply, saying ‘Please. Whatever you can give us. We need them,’” she said.

“Kids have been coming to school without coats; without a change of clothes for the next day; without boots,” said special education teacher Julie Spooner, vice president of the Ogdensburg Education Association. The union has set up clothes closets in each school, where students can get donated second-hand jackets and other clothes.

“We have a lot of walkers; they need warm gear,” she said. “Some are coming pretty far in cold weather without anything. It’s sad. It’s very, very sad.” Only students who live outside the city are bused.

Wills and other members of The People Project will be out delivering the new coats to schools this week. The schools will distribute them to students.

This year, Operation Warm donated 425,000 coats across North America.

“Each coat has a tag inside that the child's name can be written on so that the children understand that they now own this coat. It is theirs to keep! Many have never had a brand new coat,” said Mary Ann Romans from Operation Warm.

In addition to clothes provided by the OEA, which also hosts community dinners for families, Ogdensburg children can get hats and mittens, which are donated by local churches.

“We go through them right away,” said Spooner.

In St. Lawrence County, 29 percent of children live below the poverty line, according to the state Community Action Association. Spooner said more than 80 percent of students in Ogdensburg receive free or reduced lunch, and many students have experienced trauma.

Some of these neglected children were born to addicted parents, she said, and many come to school without knowledge of letters, numbers, animals, or social interaction.

“It’s gotten worse. They’re used to being left unattended or not interacted with,” she said.

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