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Dress a turkey and dress a child helps keep children warm

November 25, 2018
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ARDIE ARVIDSON/HARTSVILLE MESSENGER Joann DeLong, executive director of the United Way of Hartsville, is already preparing for winter weather by collecting coats for Hartsville school children to be distributed to those caught without this winter. Through Coats4Kids, she collects new and gently used coats for school children of all ages. Collection boxes are in 27 locations throughout Hartsville.

HARTSVILLE, S.C. – When Joann DeLong saw young children huddled next to a fence on a school ground in town one cold morning a few years ago, she knew she had to do something.

Her mission became to provide coats to school children who didn’t have one.

As executive director of United Way of Hartsville, DeLong had the perfect avenue to accomplish her mission.

She said it all started because one November day in 2103 as she was driving through town she saw some children at Thornwell School for the Arts huddled together outside on a very cold day and thought “Where are their coats?”

“I decided come the next year I was going to do a coat drive,” she said. “One (United Way) board member said you have to remember you are no longer in the north.” DeLong lived in Pennsylvania before moving to Hartsville.

The fact that South Carolina winters are short and sometimes mild didn’t stop a determined DeLong.

DeLong said cold is cold and she wasn’t letting children go to school without a coat on cold days if she had anything to say about it.

In 2014, the successful Coats4Kids program was started through the United Way of Hartsville.

“The first year I collected 350 coats,” she said. “We have collected a total of 1,497 coats in the first four years of the program, 392 pairs of gloves and 191 hats.”

DeLong said it does her heart good to be able to know that children are going to school with coats, hats and gloves to keep them warm.

She said she started with 13 collection sites, and by the second year, businesses were calling her to ask if they could place collection boxes in their businesses. Twenty-seven businesses now participate, some with multiple boxes. One collection site has started its own campaign to raise additional funds for coats.

DeLong said some collection sites make a competition out of collecting coats. She said one church has a Clemson box and a Carolina box to see which fans can bring in the most coats.

DeLong said she tries to make the tall, white boxes attractive by decorating them with snowflakes. She has a poster she distributes which was designed by a Coker College student in a contest the first year that she also adds to the boxes.

“They go out the first week in October and remain out until the middle of November,” she said.

However, some businesses ask to keep their boxes out a little longer.

The coat drive this year was from Oct. 1 to Nov. 16. United Way will continue to accept coats, hats and gloves at the UW office on Carolina Avenue after the drive is over.

“When you start a big project, you have to start with the back end in mind and work backward,” DeLong said. “I had to decide how to collect the coats, how to get them cleaned and how to distribute them.”

Both new and gently used coats for children in K-12 grades are accepted.

DeLong said she divides the dry cleaning up between Fifth Street Cleaners and 60 Minute Cleaners in Hartsville. For the ones that can be laundered at home and need repair, Delong takes them home and does the work herself.

“Any coats that are unsuitable for children are given to the Soup Kitchen,” she said. “We have been fortunate from day one to partner with the Kiwanis Club and the Rotary Club. Jiffy Print has provided a discount on the posters, and Carolina’s Kids distributes the coats to elementary school children.”

DeLong said two years ago she got a call from someone who had seen a high school student going into school wrapped in a blanket. She immediately made contact with Hartsville High School and Hartsville Middle School. Now she delivers coats to both schools.

She said last year was their best year to date. United Way collected 509 coats in 2017. Three hundred and fifteen coats were dropped off at Carolina’s Kids, 50 at the middle school, 75 to the high school and the rest went to the Soup Kitchen.

“Thank goodness for the volunteers who go out and collect the coats and bring them back to the United Way office,” she said.

She said the boxes are always overflowing with coats and are really heavy.

DeLong said if she runs out of a particular size coat needed for a boy or girl, the public has always been generous in making donations so that she can purchase what is needed.

With many of the donations, she goes to Dollar General in Hartsville and picks up fleeced-lined hoodies for the older children, which they seem to like. She said other stores are generous in discounting coats for her at the end of the season.

DeLong is happy to announce a new twist to the coat drive this year, which will help her in purchasing coats in the most popular sizes.

The T.B. Thomas Sport Center, a collection site since the program began, came up with the idea of “Dress a Turkey & Dress a Child.” Participants are asked to purchase a turkey feather for $1 with all proceeds going to the coat drive. The feather with the persons’ name or what they are most thankful for is placed on a giant turkey on a wall in the entrance to the T.B. Thomas Sports Center. Anyone wishing to participate should stop by the center at 701 W. Washington St. in Hartsville and make a donation. The fundraiser will continue through December. For more information, call 843-339-2878.

“I am so excited about their idea,” DeLong said.

There has been nothing but positive feedback from principals, guidance counselors and social workers at the schools about the program, she said.

“The program has been a success,” DeLong said. “This is a program that I’m not going to end, not as long as there is a need. And there is a need. All the coats are distributed every year.”

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