"It’s OK to need help, and it’s OK to give help,” Kent County YMCA Membership Director Tricia Driscoll said of the 16th Annual Buy Nothing Day Winter Coat Exchange, an event that took place Friday at the State House, as well as other YMCAs. “That’s what the Y is here for, and our community appreciates that.”
The point of the exchange is to help people who otherwise may not be able to afford a coat. As it’s name implies, garments are free of charge.
Greg Gerritt, a long-time activist who is associated with Friends of the Moshassuck, the Green Party, and ProsperityForRI.com, originated the coat exchange 16 years ago in Vancouver, Canada. The event is always held on Black Friday, the busiest day in the American retail calendar and the unofficial start of the international holiday shopping season.
Gerritt estimates that thousands of activists and concerned citizens from at least 65 countries throughout the world take part in the event as a 24-hour consumer detox. Last year, Kent County was the first of the YMCA facilities in Rhode Island to participate. But this year, the West Bay and the Cranston Ys joined in to share the warmth.
“We’ve been having a lot of families come in with young kids,” said Danielle Healy, the wellness representative at the Cranston Y at 1225 Park Avenue. “It’s a huge benefit to the younger children.”
She said at least 100 coats for both children and adults were donated to the Cranston Y and more were dropped off Friday. Jeanmarie Pariseau, executive assistant to the director, agreed, pointing out that not only did residents from Cranston visit to find new coats, Providence families stopped by, too.
“A lot of the coats are gone,” Pariseau said. “People took out bags and bags.”
Helping out the less fortunate, she said, is part of their mission. Executive Director Mike Norklun echoed her sentiments.
“The Y would like to be a resource to the community,” said Norklun, who noted that the facility donated 20 Thanksgiving baskets to Y families with the help of the Cranston Rotary. “We’re always there to help people in need.”
Driscoll said excess garments at the Kent Y would be delivered to Westbay Community Action, based in Warwick, that aims to assist economically disadvantaged Kent County residents achieve and sustain self-sufficiency and stability.
Driscoll said the Y collected nearly 500 coats. By 1:30 p.m., about 300 had been picked up. As some people walked in to drop off bags full of coats, others left with bags full of coats.
“It’s really great,” she said. “It’s an important part of our social responsibility. So many people have been so generous.”
Kent Y member Elaine Virgilio was one of those generous people who delivered a bag full of coats. While she originally planned to drop of the coats to the State House, where approximately 2,000 coats were distributed, she changed her mind when she realized a drive was being held in her own city.
“My kids grow out of clothes, and I just wanted somebody else to be able to get them,” she said as she approached the facility. “It’s a great thing.”
Although Driscoll said they collected fewer coats than last year, she wasn’t discouraged. Instead, she sees it as a positive, as she thinks most people already donated coats and other winter apparel in response to Hurricane Sandy.
“There were other opportunities for other people to give, and that’s what matters,” she said. “We really appreciate the donations. We are in this community – this is where we live, and this is where our families are. It’s important for us to be a connection for people who are generous and able to give to people who need to receive things. That has to be a goal that we embrace, and the coat exchange is one example of how we can help.”
She and the staff left the coats set up through the weekend so people in need had the chance to look around. Some of the coats, Driscoll said, were “really cute,” with labels such as Columbia and LL Bean.
“There are a lot of name brand things,” she said. “People were really thoughtful about what they gave. Clearly, they made an effort to make sure that people who need a coat are wearing a great coat. Everyone has challenges, but people are so generous.”
Other than the State House and YMCA facilities, the Bristol Elks Lodge, East Providence Senior Center, Newport’s St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, St. Francis of Assisi in South Kingstown and the Blackstone Valley Visitors Center in Pawtucket took part this year.
“It’s amazing how it’s grown,” said Gerritt. “It’s kind of fun.”
Aside from the coat exchange, the Kent and Cranston Y’s are ready to spread even more holiday cheer to those in need throughout the season. The Kent Y has a Giving Tree program, which is for members and families of the Y and the community who need a little help.
“This is just another example of bring together people, who are able to give and people who need to receive,” said Driscoll.
Similarly, the Cranston Y is having a breakfast with Santa on Dec. 14. For more information call 943-0444.