Now that the weather finally matches the season, staying warm is in the forefront of people’s minds, especially those with limited means.
Locally, there are numerous programs that provide warm clothing at low cost or for free. These programs provide needed help to some and opportunities to share for those who wish to donate or volunteer.
One program focused exclusively on clothing is Warm the Children (WTC). This program is administered by news organizations. Locally, WTC was started 15 years ago by the Ann Arbor News, which continued their sponsorship after morphing into AnnArbor.com.
Mack Stewart, a newspaperman who was looking for a way to make a difference in his community, started WTC in Connecticut in 1988. When he found himself without a job at age 60, he decided to spend the rest of his life promoting the program nationally. WTC now operates in 38 cities and 15 states.
The local director is Jill Tewsley, 45, of Milan, events and promotions manager at annarbor.com. WTC-Ann Arbor receives referrals from local schools and matches needy families with volunteer shoppers.
The volunteer shoppers go to Target with the parents or with the whole family, Tewsley explained. They are given $90 per child to be spent on clothes, shoes, boots, and jackets. Target processes purchase orders from WTC and provides an additional five percent discount. Previously Meijer was the retail partner.
As many as 40-50 local groups participate in the program, including businesses, churches, civic organizations and women’s groups. Each of these groups agrees to be responsible for five-50 families.
There are also individuals who volunteer to be shoppers. This year there were 100-150 new volunteers, Tewsley said. Altogether about 500 volunteers participated in 2011.
The program continues to grow. This year 3,200 children were served, up from 2,700 the previous year.
Margot Schreer, 69, of Ypsilanti became involved in the local program at its inception in 1997. She had been in an automobile accident in 1991, limiting her mobility so that she was unable to shop. Instead, she started answering calls on the program’s hotline and after a few weeks asked if she could do even more. She became the volunteer coordinator, matching up shoppers with referred families.
“I try to be very personal with my shoppers,” Schreer said. She considers family size and ages of the children in matching shoppers with recipients.
Just this year, Schreer acquired a helper. Interestingly, her fellow coordinator is the daughter of WTC’s founder, Mack Stewart.
Mary Stewart, 50, of Ypsilanti Township has lived in Washtenaw County for most of her adult life. She was proud of her dad’s mission and wanted to be involved locally. Starting out as a shopper, she is now helping Schreer with the volunteers.
One of these volunteers is Elaine Portice, 66, of Manchester. Portice started as a donor then decided she would like to do more. Finding that WTC had enough shoppers at that time, she volunteered to do office work.
For several years she helped with fundraising, mainly envelope-stuffing and data entry. Some of the work could be completed from home, while most jobs were done at the newspaper office. Two years ago she became a shopper.
Each year Portice shops with four families, having one to several children. Sometimes the parents do not speak English, but the children do, she said. The recipients are grateful.
“Sometimes they want to hug me; they’re really happy to get the help,” Portice said.
In their 15 years of service to Washtenaw and parts of Livingston counties, WTC has purchased new clothing for nearly 30,000 children. In addition to AnnArbor.com, the Ann Arbor Community Foundation and United Bank and Trust also cooperate in the effort.
WTC does not accept donations of new or used clothes, only monetary gifts, which are welcome at all times. Shoppers are needed September through December, though some shopping continues into January, Tewsley said.