New coats give the gift of warmth in Chicago
In 10 years, Wells Fargo and the Chicago Public Schools have given away more than 65,000 coats to kids.
Watching a student struggle to find the perfect winter coat at Alessandro Volta Elementary School in Chicago made Landria Lewis all the more determined to help. Having already fit dozens of students at Volta in coats as part of Wells Fargo’s Coats for Kids giveaway, she redoubled the search and soon found her coat shopper a winner.
“Yep,” said the student to Lewis as she asked if she liked the latest coat she helped her try on — its color, size, and style.
“As one of the younger volunteers in our group, I remember more than other people what it was like for girls to find a certain style that they like,” said Lewis, a first-time volunteer with the project and credit program analyst for Wells Fargo Commercial Capital.
“They were bigger and taller than some of the other children, kind of like me when I was their age, and I don’t think they thought they were going to be able to find a coat,” she said. “It was a great feeling to particularly help her and another student find a coat they liked. They found two coats that fit them perfectly.”
Wells Fargo’s Coats for Kids giveaway in Chicago began in 2009 with a Wells Fargo Advisors branch team, one school, and coats they bought themselves.
Since then, other team members from Wells Fargo Advisors and Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., and its businesses have pitched in to help. As a result, more than 65,000 children across the city have received new coats over the last decade.
That’s 3,500 more coats than there are seats in Chicago’s Soldier Field stadium. The project is supported by team member donations, Wells Fargo contributions, grants, and other sources.
When Wells Fargo volunteers left Charles Sumner Math & Science Community Academy after their Coats for Kids stop, Tania McCallum’s two children had new coats.
“When you think of how this project began and where it is today, it’s inspiring where the volunteer spirit of our team members and company and their generosity have taken us." — Carter Wellford
“I am a single mom, and it definitely is hard to try to provide for them, especially this time of year,” she said.
While Wells Fargo also helps provide coats for the Chicago Housing Authority, Rainbow PUSH Coalition, and Children’s Home & Aid, most are distributed through its collaboration with the Chicago Public Schools’ Office of Family and Community Engagement.
This year, Lewis and more than 200 Wells Fargo volunteers boarded yellow school buses Dec. 2 to 6 to fit 9,500 students at 19 elementary schools and one high school with new coats — the most ever in the program’s 10‑year history.
“When you think of how this project began and where it is today, it’s inspiring where the volunteer spirit of our team members and company and their generosity have taken us,” said Carter Wellford, who leads Coats for Kids as the Chicago branch manager for Wells Fargo Advisors.
“I can’t tell you how many hugs and high fives we get over the years as the children pick out and put on their new coats,” he said. “One of the children asked me this year at one of the schools, ‘Is this really mine? Do I get to take this home?’ And the answer was, of course, ‘It’s yours to keep.’ It was the first new coat they’d ever had. I know we’re making a difference.”
Keda Jeter, program manager for Chicago Public Schools’ Office of Family and Community Engagement in Education, helps Wellford’s team identify the schools and students receiving the coats.
She said what makes the Coats for Kids project unique is its scale and the level of commitment. “They are not just giving away coats, but developing relationships with our students, principals, schools, and communities,” she said of Wells Fargo’s volunteers.
Wellford said the Coats for Kids project took off through its collaboration in 2014 with Operation Warm — a nonprofit that provides coats and other support for coat giveaways in 48 U.S. states and Canada.
“It was a big project when we did it ourselves, but it truly became big through Operation Warm,” Wellford said.
Like Wells Fargo’s coat giveaway in Chicago, Operation Warm has humble origins — starting with founder Dick Sanford’s experience one cold day in December 2000.
‘How could kids be without coats?’
Driving past a bus stop in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, two days after he’d sold a tech company he built, Sanford noticed several children braving the cold and wind in little more than long-sleeve T-shirts and windbreakers.
“We all have a personal responsibility to help others, and what is most important to me is helping people think about helping other human beings. It takes a village, and, with the help of Wells Fargo and its team members and others who have joined us in this effort, we’ve created a larger village of love and support.” — Dick Sanford
“Several weeks later, I saw an article in the same town’s newspaper about power being turned off in homes and was shocked, because it’s also home to Longwood Gardens,” he said. “It’s one of the best-known botanical gardens in the U.S. — built by Pierre DuPont. How could kids be without coats, and people be without heat, in the same community with so much wealth and resources?”
It bothered Sanford so much that he walked into a local clothing store with the same newspaper article, showed it to the owner, and explained his desire to get the kids at the bus stop and others coats. “He read it and said, ‘I’ll sell you every coat I have,’” Sanford said.
With the help of his church and a local nonprofit, Sanford put coats on 58 children that first week of January 2001. The project grew from his church (Episcopal Church of the Advent), to his local Rotary club, and then far beyond schools and children in the Delaware Valley — so he created Operation Warm in 2003.
Since then, companies like Wells Fargo and organizations like the Chicago Public Schools have further broadened the nonprofit’s reach to put coats on nearly 3.5 million children in the U.S. and Canada to date, including more than 450,000 in 2019.
“We’ve had children living in cars and who have been bringing clothes to schools since they can’t wash them at home get their first coats through this project, and seen and heard so many stories to know it’s more than just a coat given,” Sanford said. “It’s hope and self-esteem.
“When the children pick out and put on that coat with a volunteer at their school, they know that ‘Someone loves me and cares for me,’” he said. “We all have a personal responsibility to help others, and what is most important to me is helping people think about helping other human beings. It takes a village, and, with the help of Wells Fargo and its team members and others who have joined us in this effort, we’ve created a larger village of love and support.”
Wells Fargo Advisors is a trade name used by Wells Fargo Clearing Services, LLC, Member SIPC, a registered broker-dealer and non-bank affiliate of Wells Fargo & Company. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. is a bank affiliate of Wells Fargo & Company. CAR-1219-02393