Winter in Bellingham can reach temperatures below freezing, and a winter coat is imperative to brave the outdoors.
Members of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 106 have teamed up with Operation Warm, a national nonprofit that manufactures brand-new, high-quality coats and shoes for children in need. Their goal is to help families this winter by raising money to buy winter coats for students at Custer Elementary School.
Local 106 represents firefighters working for North Whatcom Fire and Rescue, South Whatcom Fire Authority, Lynden Fire, Port Firefighters and the City of Bellingham. The group has worked with Operation Warm for eight years and is passionate about the cause.
“Every time we hand [coats] out, it’s fulfilling,” said Bellingham Fire Captain Jeff Heinrichs. “There will be kids coming through that are just elated to get a new jacket. Also, [we hear] kids that don’t need them ask to give them to somebody that does.”
Apart from protecting the community from fires, members of Local 106 said they strive to be public safety experts and protect the community from other dangers.
“People don't call the fire department unless it’s a bad day, and we see all sorts of living conditions and people on their worst day,” Heinrichs said. “Giving coats out to people who need them is a way to give back to the community.”
This will be Operation Warm’s 24th year servicing the public, and their organization has served over 4 million children across the U.S.
“For many individuals and families in our own communities, the decision may come down to buying food for the week, paying the electric bill, buying a coat to keep yourself warm, or buying a coat to keep your child warm,” said Lindsey McGuirk. “Why is that a choice anyone should have to make? A donation that seems as simple as a winter coat could free up someone’s budget for a more pressing need.”
McGuirk is a communications and volunteer engagement manager at Interfaith Coalition, an organization that offers assistance to families experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County.
“Sharing resources with families and individuals who may not have the privilege or opportunities that many of us have is crucial,” McGuirk said.
One Warm Coat states that 11% of all Americans are living in poverty as of 2020 and struggling to afford basic necessities, and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 increased the poverty rate for the first time in five years.
Organizations like One Warm Coat and Operation Warm are committed to helping families by working with faculty at local elementary schools to ensure that every student will get what they need for the wintertime.
“Generally, because [the coats are] brand new and high quality, it just really ensures some equity around our school,” said Custer Elementary School Counselor Caitlin Jacobi. “We have a lot of kids who don’t come in adequate winter coats, so I would say that it’s something that we’re doing to make things more equitable just to make sure kids can get outside and play because that’s where they want to be.”
The ability to play outside is essential for elementary-age students, and according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, is important for improving motor skills and getting proper levels of Vitamin D that are necessary to grow.
“Kids need to move and have the fresh air and space for free movement,” Jacobi said. “When it’s really cold outside, it becomes a barrier if they don’t have coats. If we can ensure that students have a coat, we can ensure that they’re maximizing their learning and their movement."