These coats at Christmas bring more than warmth — they weave lives together

The party’s atmosphere was warm, but this December night numbed the fingers of the weary mother. Her body shivered beneath a thin sweatshirt.

Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas! Santa Claus boomed into a microphone from the elevated stage.

A horse-drawn wagon had just delivered him to Gillham Park, and the red and blue flashing lights of his police escort lit the sky. Costumed Frosty and Rudolph danced alongside Santa. Children gathered with their parents, forming a massive line to whisper in his ear.

The woman, meanwhile, made her way to a packed clothing rack and table where 59-year-old Carol Green, an event coordinator for Kansas City Parks and Recreation, had set up a sign:

Free Coat.

“It is at Christmastime that want is most keenly felt, and abundance rejoices,” Charles Dickens famously wrote. Green put it more plainly. “There is a need,” she said.

The woman’s need was, indeed, keen.

Only months before, she and her two children had escaped her husband’s fists. She endured his abuse for 18 years, she said, before mustering the courage to get out. Her name and photograph are withheld to ensure her safety.

Her 11-year-old daughter stood at her side, a quiet girl with downcast eyes. They’d come from a Southern state and had left for Kansas City having no cold weather gear. No job. No money.

“We left with one bag of clothes. That’s it,” the mother said.

She picked through the pile of some 75 coats donated through Project Warmth — the Salvation Army program that each winter, since 1982, collects thousands of donated coats and other items. (This year it was close to 11,000 coats, plus 7,000 blankets, hats and gloves.) The items are then distributed to those in need through some 50 Kansas City area agencies.

The mother picked up a gray Calvin Klein pea coat for her daughter. A Christmas item, she said, for their “new life.”

Sponsored by The Kansas City Star, Project Warmth, at its core, is driven by the spirit of giving. At one end are anonymous donors who might not always think it means much to donate a warm coat. On the other end are anonymous recipients who do. Their stories only become linked by the garments they share.

With that in mind, The Star set out to chronicle a handful of those stories — of those who give, and of those who receive — by showing up at a coat drop-off site on Nov. 5, at Town Center Plaza in Leawood. Then, weeks later, the coats were followed to their recipients.

Hundreds of people delivered coats and blankets to the Leawood drop-off site, one of 10 across the city. As the afternoon ended, the donations would be driven to a warehouse in Kansas City, Kan., sorted and bagged by scores of volunteers for delivery in the weeks to come.

It hadn’t been easy for Richard and Lynn Murray to finally donate the Calvin Klein coat, which had belonged to his mother.

Helen Gilman was 95 years old when she died in the summer of 2011. She had been married for 66 years, with three children. And she had remained fashionable to the last.

“She was,” Lynn Murray said, “a great dresser.”

Gilman took pride in it, first working as a teenager at Einbender’s clothing store in downtown St. Joseph. Later, she sold women’s clothing for more than 20 years at Chasnoff’s at Metcalf South Shopping Center.

Garments are often more than garments. They clothe memories, wistful and nostalgic.

“We kept the coat because we couldn’t part with it,” Lynn said.

Finally, after five years, it seemed time, and also something that Helen Gilman would have wanted.

“She’d say, ‘Someone can use it,’ ” Lynn said.

Weeks later, someone did, when the mother escaping domestic abuse draped it over her arm for her daughter.

When Maureen Jackson of Overland Park rolled up to the drop-off site, she carried a pristine leather jacket.

“This belonged to my husband,” she said. “He was meticulous.”

Craig Jackson was only 55 when he, too, died five years ago. Tears gathered as Maureen spoke of her hard-charging, executive husband, a man who worked and traveled constantly. Married for 28 years, they had four children together.

“As time goes by, it gets a little easier,” she said of her children’s grief.

The quickness and severity of their father’s illness caught everyone off guard.

By the time his stage four esophageal cancer was diagnosed, Craig would have only two months to live. In the five years since, other tragedies also unfolded, including the death of Maureen’s mother. A brother died in a hang-gliding accident.

By donating her husband’s jacket, Maureen felt that in bettering someone’s life and helping them move forward, she might move forward, too.

“I gave away 14 of his suits last week,” she said, her voice choking.

Weeks later, at Gillham Park, 11-year-old Kenan Handson draped the jacket over his back, slipped in one arm and then the other. The sleeves, inches too long, dangled past his fingertips. He pulled them up above his wrists.

“He can wear it to church,” said his mother, 39-year-old Tyronna Johnson, looking his way and smiling.

Kenan, a musician, plays the trombone on Sundays at the Concord Fortress of Hope Church, just west of Longview Lake.

“Like it?” his mother asked. Her son nodded.

Phil Lopez of Overland Park was thinking of his own boys when he and his wife, Kim, dropped off a set of plaid blankets that once covered the twin beds of two of his three sons.

“I picture a lot of nights tucking them in,” Lopez said of the boys, long since grown into adults. Alex, 27, works as an aerospace engineer in Florida; Colton, 22, is a Kansas member of the Army National Guard.

Now, on cold nights, the blankets will warm two other children — 7-year-old Jakkar Williams and his brother, 8-year-old Jourice McClarin.

The boys’ mom, Judy McClarin, 28, bundled one blanket into her arms. Her sister, Jakeisha McClarin, 22, carried the other.

“It’s about to get colder,” said Jakeisha, a dental assistant. “We need to be warm.”

“They’ll go on the boys’ beds,” said her older sister, pregnant and showing with another son soon to be born.

Money doesn’t come easy, Judy said. Her job as a home health aide pays OK, but not a fortune, especially at Christmas.

“This,” she said of the blankets, “helps.”

Nicki Pinault’s grin stretched from ear to ear as she heaved a heavy, mustard-yellow coat off a hanger and slipped it on. She pulled up the hood, examined its wood buttons. She shimmied side-to-side, hands in the coat’s deep pockets, posing like a runway model.

Age 30, and getting by partly on food stamps, she couldn’t have been more grateful given her responsibilities.

“I have one son. He’s 5,” she said of her boy, Gauge. “I clean houses for a living. Five days a week. I take care of my mom, too. She has fibromyalgia.”

Money is short. Her mother, she said, had been in a car wreck from which she’d yet to fully recover. “We live paycheck to paycheck, from my work and what we get in disability.”

Kate Royer had dropped off the coat, wanting it to find a nice home. That coat, which also looked practically new, had been with her husband for decades.

“This coat is probably 45 years old now,” Royer explained. “It’s a loden, a real loden from Munich.”

Loden is a traditional Austrian coat and is also the name of the fabric it’s made of.

Her husband, Jack, had gotten the coat decades before while stationed with the U.S. Army in Berlin. He retired with the rank of major in 1994. The two met when they both attended the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.

Most loden coats are forest green, so having a yellow one was different. Starting with the coarse wool of mountain sheep, the material is gradually finished into dense fabric that feels like felt but is durable enough to keep out the elements.

“I’d think that 95 percent of anyone who served in Germany has a loden coat,” Royer said. In 1995, she retired at rank of lieutenant colonel. Her own loden coat, she said, sits in a cedar chest at home.

But her husband, she said, hadn’t worn his since they got married.

“If it helps somebody, it helps somebody,” she said.

Weeks later, it did.

In November, Ruth Ficek Stepien, 72, of Olathe had dropped off a red, hooded jacket, lined for warmth, that belonged to her friend, Sally Williams.

The two met years ago through a canoeing and kayaking club, the Ozark Wilderness Waterways Club, whose members paddle down rivers including the Missouri and the Kansas. They became fast friends, going to dinner and movies and spending holidays together.

Seeing the coat, Stepien thinks of her good friend and happy days on the water.

“She moved to North Carolina. She doesn’t need a warm coat anymore. She told me to donate it,” said Stepien, who has long been adventurous. In her youth, she served in the Peace Corps in India.

One day after the event at Gillham Park, Carol Green hauled about 100 coats to a community Christmas party at Penguin Park in Kansas City, North.

Adeline Frausto, 55, soon found the donated red jacket. A native Spanish speaker, she spoke only limited English. Her daughter, Marysol Aguiler, 26, explained that her family had come to Kansas City from southern California to secure jobs and a better life.

Aguiler said her father came first for work. Then she followed, then her mother.

“I’ve been here two years. It’s different, but it’s better. More jobs. More opportunities. It’s hard to get a job out there,” Aguiler said.

The jacket would go to her 30-year-old brother, Christian, who also just arrived from California to work.

“Never been in this kind of weather,” she said of her family.

One of the coats followed from Leawood didn’t find a home on this night. Terri Melling of Stilwell had donated a long dress coat — calf-length, size petite and completely white — that she bought in 2013 and used routinely for work.

A former employee at Sprint, she later became a consultant to the company. She would sometimes set it off smartly with black gloves, a pin on the collar, a cashmere scarf. It made her feel good.

At night’s end, it and dozens of other coats were placed in plastic bags. Volunteers from St. Luke Presbyterian Church up the street on Northeast Vivion Road came to get them.

The church doesn’t run a shelter or food bank. But Anna Scianna, the church’s director of youth and family ministries, said it was hardly uncommon, as the weather turned colder, for people simply to knock on the door and ask for help.

For them, the church kept food and clothes and warm coats.

“This is a beautiful coat,” Scianna said, holding up the white coat. She folded it and tucked it in the bag.

“It’s a nice coat. I had thought, ‘Do I really want to get rid of it?’ ” Melling had said. Then, of course, she did, saying as she handed it over, “I hope it keeps them warm.”

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler

How to help

Those wishing to donate coats and blankets can still do so by dropping them off at any of the Salvation Army’s local Family Store & Donation Centers.

Those include:

1301 E. 10th St. in Kansas City

6219 Johnson Drive in Mission

6469 N. Prospect Ave. in Gladstone

1535 E. 23rd St. in Independence

11421 Metcalf Ave. in Overland Park

616 S. 130th St. in Bonner Springs

1223 E. Santa Fe in Olathe