Cozying Up with New Coats

Operation Warm welcomes families in need to the library

December 20, 2019

A librarian helps a child pick out her new coat at Chicago Public Library's Chicago Lawn branch. (Photo: Francis Son)
A librarian helps a child pick out her new coat at Chicago Public Library's Chicago Lawn branch. Photo: Francis Son

Do we have to cut the tag off?” asked the boy. “Everyone can see that it’s new if I keep the tag on.”

Kennett (Pa.) Library (KL) Adult Literacy Program Director Filomena Elliott wanted to cut the tag off a young boy’s new coat before he went to play. The child was one of four, she says, and she knew the family shopped at Goodwill. “So to him, having that tag on said, ‘I got a new coat this year,’” she says.

This story is one of many from A Warm Welcome to the Library, a program that brings new coats, new books, and library cards to children at participating libraries—and allows librarians to teach families about the resources available to them. The events are organized by Operation Warm, a nonprofit organization that has given away 3 million winter coats to kids in need since its inception in 1998.

A Warm Welcome to the Library began in fall 2017, when Liz McChesney, former director of children’s services and family engagement at Chicago Public Library (CPL), found herself at a community round table meeting with Operation Warm, looking for ways to bring new families to the library. That’s when it clicked: “Why don’t we give out coats at the library as an incentive to invite families who may not know what libraries are, have literacy issues, or may feel embarrassed coming in?” says Allison Price, associate director of development and strategic initiatives at Operation Warm.

“These events attracted families who had never been inside their neighborhood library,” McChesney says. “We find that if we can get a child into their neighborhood library, they are very likely to return.”

Two CPL branches hosted the pilot program, and 300 new coats, 300 new books, and 116 library cards were distributed. Price says 78% of those library cards were still active six months later. This winter, Operation Warm will give out approximately 7,500 coats.

“[The program] has translated so well regardless of whether we’re working with a rural library, a suburban library with hidden poverty, or a big city like New York or Chicago,” Price says.

Elliott, who teaches English to more than 400 adult students from other countries, encouraged her students to bring their children to KL’s first Warm Welcome to the Library event in November 2018. Operation Warm typically starts by giving away 150 brand-new coats, but there can be more depending on funding. Elliott’s first program had enough financial support to give away more than 300 coats. She gave the 20 coats left over to the community.

Operation Warm provides extra coats to allow for kids’ unpredictable sizes and growth, Price says, and libraries are welcome to donate the surplus wherever they are needed once the event ends.

CPL now rotates the events among several locations. Alexa Hamilton, special projects librarian in children’s services and family engagement at CPL, says hitting every community in need is a challenge. “Not being able to provide for everyone can be disappointing, but we do our best to reach places that are high need, or new libraries,” she says. “We want to equitably distribute these resources.”

Hamilton says being the pilot site for the program is a humbling honor, and CPL has a responsibility to show that it works and meets goals. “We want to make sure we’re using the coats the best way we can to fulfill missions, bring in new patrons, and build trust in the community,” she says.

And building trust means showing families that the library “is another place to be” besides school and home, Hamilton says. Libraries are encouraged to plan activities to make the day more fun, and CPL has showcased music, engineering, and crafts, among other activities. “Families who haven’t been to the library before often don’t know we have these programs,” she says.

A partnership with Operation Warm, Elliott says, makes sense for the library. “[The program] has made the library more of a community center,” she said. “[Operation Warm and libraries] help the same people, so we should be able to help each other.”

For more information on how to hold A Warm Welcome to the Library at your own library, visit Operation Warm’s website. Operation Warm will also be attending the 2020 Public Library Association Conference in Nashville.


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