“Pre-COVID, this whole area would be filled with grandmas, moms, kids,” Janet Didier stated, gesturing toward a large, empty room at the Christ Child Society Coats for Kids headquarters in Fort Wayne.
The Coats for Kids program works with numerous schools in Allen County to provide coats for underprivileged children throughout the month of October. This year, the society again had coats to give away — but no way to get them to those who needed them.
Normally, parents or guardians bring their children to the Christ Child Society building downtown on specified Wednesdays, where volunteers bring the child a selection of coats in the appropriate size to try on. Social distancing requirements eliminated this as an option.
“It is so important to get these coats to kids with all this insecurity,” Didier emphasized. After speaking with another member of the society, Julianne Toenges, a solution came to light. Toenges knew police Capt. Mitch McKinney, head of the Community Outreach Division for the Fort Wayne Police Department. When she asked him if the department could help deliver the coats, there was no hesitation.
“When someone comes to us, we try to say yes,” McKinney said. He brought two other men with him to pick up full boxes of coats and load them into a Fraternal Order of Police trailer to take to schools. Their stops included schools in the East Allen County and Fort Wayne Community school districts.
Last year, the Fort Wayne chapter of the Christ Child Society gave away over 2,000 coats. Didier stated that the first day of this year’s campaign saw nearly 300 coats go out to schoolchildren. “I would like to see the last day of October come and we would have no coats left,” she declared. Some years, the society does run out of coats, though that is typically toward the end of the month.
On one day this October, the entire room is a beehive of activity as women pull coats from the racks, pack them into boxes and label them for shipping to the proper location. Many hands made light work, and soon the boxes were ready to go.
While it was perhaps a quicker system, many of the volunteers said they missed seeing the children’s faces as they received their new coats. Oftentimes, the coat is one of the few possessions the children can call their own.
The volunteers fondly reminisced on previous years when they watched children wear their new coats out of the building proudly, even if the outside temperature was still high.
Coats are not all that a child would walk out the door with. Hats, mittens and sometimes scarves are all part of the ensemble. Didier spoke of a woman who was visiting from Alabama years ago, looking for purpose in her life. She happened to attend Mass during the Annual Bishop’s Appeal and saw the video, which featured the Christ Child Society. She felt she had found her purpose. Now, she knits hats and ships them to Fort Wayne for distribution each October. Another woman, a 92-year-old Christ Child Society member, knits scarves for the children.
The Christ Child Society collaborates with school counselors in the parochial and public school systems in Allen County to determine who may need their help. This year, they relied even more heavily on those counselors.
Marlene Offerle is one of the organizers of the Coats for Kids program. She said that this year the ministry had to send forms to the schools for the counselors to fill out, listing students’ gender and size, so the society could fill the orders as they came in.
At Lindley Elementary in Fort Wayne, Corey Martin is one of those counselors. He expressed gratitude for the society volunteers, who work tirelessly to ensure the welfare of the children. “When I think of the Christ Child Society of Fort Wayne, I think of all the wonderful lives and families we have touched; all the children we have made happy by providing them with a warm coat to help them through the cold winter days in Indiana.”
His own nieces have benefited from the program, he recalled, when his brother fell on hard times. “This is an example of why I will always go the extra mile to help as many families as I can. Thank you, Christ Child Society.”
The volunteers are meticulous when it comes to choosing coats. They try to ensure that different colors and styles go to each school so that all the children at that school will not all end up with the same coat. This allows for a bit of individuality, pride of ownership and ease of locating a child’s coat.
There is some concern this year about how many coats may end up coming back to the stockroom. Without being able to try coats on, some children might end up receiving a coat that is the wrong size. It’s a risk members decided to take because the need to get the coats out was so urgent. Over 100 coats went to the East Allen County school system alone for homeless families.
McKinney was more than happy to enlist other officers, members of the Fraternal Order of Police, in the task. He has specific men he knows he can turn to when opportunities arise, he said. “These are my men of God; Christian-based men, so they get it. God leads you to these things.”
The FOP has provided community service to Allen County since 1918. According to McKinney, they receive frequent calls asking for outreach assistance; and though the police cannot answer every need, he said that they always find someone else who can.
Toenges sees the involvement of the local police as a way to unify the community. “What better way for these kids, who are hearing a different story at home, than to see policemen bringing coats to their schools?” she said. “They have been so wonderful to work with.”
McKinney believes other cities should compare themselves to Fort Wayne and see the good work his police department is doing. “This is nontraditional police work. It’s hard for kids, right now, so this is positive community policing.”
For Didier and the other Christ Child Society volunteers, the work is “all about the kids.” Every meeting starts with prayer and an act of selfless giving. “No arrogance.”
Didier has served in many of the society’s apostolates, but especially enjoys the Coats for Kids mission. “I get so energized doing this. I love the month of October.”
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