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A volunteer hands a jacket to a young student.

West Oakland students prepare for chilly weather with coats from Operation Warm

on November 12, 2019

On a suitably chilly and foggy Friday morning, streams of children entered the heated auditorium at Martin Luther King Elementary School on 10th Street in West Oakland and were received with an equally warm welcome by dozens of FedEx employees who were distributing winter coats.

The volunteers, wearing purple Santa hats and t-shirts emblazoned with the words “FedEx Cares” guided the boisterous children to rows of tables stacked with fleece-lined and hooded coats in a dizzying array of colors in children’s sizes from 4 to 12.

“Is there a color you’re looking for?” one volunteer asked an anxious boy who appeared unsure of which table he wanted to peruse first.

The event was put on by Operation Warm, a nonprofit organization that creates its own line of winter coats with the help of manufacturers, in order to distribute them for free to children from schools in low-income areas in North America. Through Operation Warm’s “Corporate Employee Volunteer Program,” staffers from companies like FedEx, which is partnered with the organization, can volunteer to distribute winter coats to specific schools.  

The organization was founded in 1998 by Dick Sanford, a resident of the small town of Kennett Square in Pennsylvania. Sanford “saw kids at his local bus stop in 30-degree weather in t-shirts,” said Kylie O’Donoghue, one of Operation Warm’s organizers at the event. “And he just couldn’t fathom that kids didn’t have such a basic necessity.”

“Now, in 2019, we just gave away 3 million coats,” O’Donoghue said. She said that FedEx, a long-time corporate partner, has been instrumental in distributing the high volume of coats to schools.

Operation Warm takes into account a number of factors in choosing a school community to serve, O’Donoghue said, but primarily uses data on the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced school lunch through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for free meals through the program, while those with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced price meals.

According to Great Schools, a national nonprofit organization that provides information on schools based on state and national data, 94 percent of students at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary come from low-income families, and therefore qualify for NSLP. Most of the students in the auditorium were children of the Yemeni and African-American communities present in the neighborhood.

“FedEx actually chose the location of Oakland,” O’Donoghue said, before adding with a hearty laugh, “and we just looked throughout the school districts, and they were just the lucky chosen one.”

In the auditorium, volunteers were busy helping kindergarten through 3rd grade students try on their new coats.  

“Lift your hands up,” one volunteer cheerily instructed a boy who was trying on a deep-red coat. “Now hug yourself,” she said. The boy complied with a grin. “Perfect,” the volunteer said.

“I’m a worker now,” said Nilan, 6, pointing to a round FedEx sticker she had placed on her new coat. With her friend Demariana, 6, they formed an amicable pair in their matching powder blue coats.

Ahmir, 5, said, “I’m good,” as he stood at the front of a line, smiling after getting a blue coat with black sleeves. “I’m going to be this tall!” he proclaimed, raising a sleeved arm high above his head. For now, at least, this size coat suited him just fine.

“I’m actually a product of Oakland Public Schools,” said Willis Wah, one of the FedEx volunteers who had just finished tending to a round of eager children. “Having grown up in the city and kind of progressing through it, now that I’m in a situation to pair up with a company that gives back, I definitely want to volunteer for every event where we do that.”

“I see my kids in a lot of these kids that we’re helping out,” he added.

Most of the boys opted for blue coats, and it appeared that everyone had gotten exactly what they wanted—and more. A few children, already donning their coats, held a couple extra pairs in their arms as they stood in line. Others who were lined up could barely contain their excitement as they bounced up and down in place.

After claiming their coats, students were invited to write their names using different colored Sharpie markers on large “thank you” posters laid out on a pair of tables in front of the stage.

“This is wonderful, isn’t it?” asked Principal Roma Groves as she made her way towards the pair of double doors at the front of the auditorium, where a volunteer was high-fiving a line of children as they left. “We appreciate this for our community.”

Shortly after 10 o’clock, after the children had made a healthy dent in the stacks of coats and returned to their classrooms, O’Donoghue stood on stage and announced, “It’s a wrap.”

The volunteers made their way outside to the school’s entrance for a group photo. Standing in front of a wall decorated with art featuring illustrious African-American leaders like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., the cluster of purple-shirted volunteers raised their hands and said “Wooooooo!” as the camerawoman snapped a few photos.

Then it was back to work, as the volunteers filed back into the auditorium to pack up what remained of the coat stacks and fold up the tables.

Billy Leonard, another FedEx volunteer, said that he decided to volunteer for the first time after seeing a video of a previous Operation Warm event. “The first time I saw the kids, it made me think of when I was in elementary school,” he said. “It hit me, and I just wanted to come out and help.”

Leonard remembered how excited he would get when he got something new, and said he felt the same sense of joy from the children he met that morning. “I can’t put it in words,” he said. “They just smile and never stop.”

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