Annual clothing drive brings community together

Hundreds of volunteers collect thousands of articles of winter clothing every year to be distributed to over 300 needy families in western Marquette County for Project Keep Kids Warm. The effort is one of several in the Upper Peninsula that combats the effects of poverty on local children. (Journal stock photo)

ISHPEMING –All native Yoopers can remember a time in their childhood that they forgot their coat, hat or gloves and got the full brunt of a seemingly unrelenting Upper Peninsula winter. But what about those children today whose parents did not even have the means to provide those items?

For nine years, Wesley United Methodist Church of Ishpeming and the Immanuel Lutheran Church of Negaunee along with Project Coordinator Dick Derby and a legion of volunteers have been working to combat that exact problem.

Every year, project organizers put together a winter clothing drive to collect jackets, snow pants, boots, hats, and mittens for needy youth ages infant to 18 years in Ishpeming, Negaunee, Republic and surrounding areas.

According to U.S. Census data from 2017, more than 18 percent of the population in Marquette County is made up of people who are under the age of 18 and of all county residents, 15 percent live in poverty.

The census bureau ranked Michigan as the 31st state in the nation for “kids in economic well-being,” with a statewide average of 21 percent of kids living in poverty which was higher than the national average of 19 percent.

Derby said one of the reasons behind the drive is to take the pressure off of families that might be struggling to make ends meet.

“We know too about winter in the U.P. and having the proper clothing to come and go to school, and be able to get outside for activities after school,” Derby said.

Bitter below-zero temperatures are a very real problem in the western Marquette County communities, and hypothermia can develop more quickly in children than in adults, according to the pediatrician-sponsored website Healthychildren.org.

“Hypothermia develops when a child’s temperature falls below normal due to exposure to colder temperatures,” the site states. “It often happens when a child is playing outdoors in extremely cold weather without wearing proper clothing.”

Frostbite is another real risk that Upper Peninsula residents face during the winter months, and without the proper winter gear such as hats and gloves, kids are at risk.

Project Keep Kids Warm provided over 300 families in need with thousands of articles of winter clothing in 2017.

“Each year we estimate a complete winter clothing collection of jackets, snow pants, boots, hats, mittens, scarves and wool socks is about 6,000 items,” Derby said. “The collection is about the same each year, with generally enough items to meet the requirements of needy families. (Although), snow pants and boots, and generally in the little boy category, are the items in short supply, and most in demand.”

Volunteers are needed for every aspect of the drive, which will start on Sept. 18 at one of the sponsoring churches from 6-9 p.m. where bright pink instruction labels will be affixed to 5,000 collection bags, Derby said.

Derby said the date when volunteers will be the most crucial is Sept. 22 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. when adult drivers and youth runners will distribute the bags to area homes.

“Volunteering can be a great family event for those who want to participate,” Derby said. “We need approximately 40 teams between the two churches.”

Donors are asked to put articles of new and gently-used winter clothing into the bags and place them curbside for collection on Sept. 29 from 10 a.m to 12 p.m.

Volunteers and door-to-door clothing donations are critical, but they are not the only thing that keeps the PKKW running.

Derby said the project does a fundraiser request each year through area businesses.

“The project is explained including the fact that certain winter clothing items are typically not donated in adequate quantities, such as snow pants and boots,” Derby said. “The funds are used to buy these items during the store sales in the spring, and stockpiled for addition to the Project that coming fall. We operate in a budget of about $5,000 with 100 percent of the funds used for clothing purchases.”

The event culminates in a “free shopping day” for families on Oct. 6 at the Ishpeming Armory, Derby said.

For those who question why the drive is important, Derby said it’s all about people helping people.

“The rest of the answer shows up on the faces of the families and their kids who come to the Armory for the free shopping day,” Derby said. “There are lots of sincere thanks and smiles filled with gratitude; it confirms that Project Keep Kids Warm is a wonderful thing in our community.”

Derby said the experience continues to be rewarding for not only the recipients, but adult and youth volunteers, donors, and sponsors as well.

“Over the years the event has demonstrated time and time again the willingness of people in our community to help a neighbor in need,” he said. “Project Keep Kids Warm has become well-known and people set aside slightly used or new winter clothing ahead of time in anticipation of donating each fall,” Derby said. “There are many regular volunteers who see the importance of this community outreach and want to be involved. One of the greatest realizations has been how much student volunteers connect with being part of the project. They learn about situations that cause people to have economic set backs, where budgeting for winter clothing is difficult, and from there, the importance of helping out.”

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is lbowers@miningjournal.net.