Spokane Valley International Association of Firefighters Local 876 has been handing out new winter coats to Spokane Valley elementary students for four years as part of the national nonprofit Operation Warm.
Firefighter Scott Niebuhr started the program in the Spokane Valley Fire Department in 2017.
He was struck that 43% of the 23,000 students in the three Spokane Valley school districts were classified as low income.
Programs for handing out new coats exist in Spokane and didn’t really exist in Spokane Valley, Niebuhr said.
“We knew there was a need,” he said. “We found an opportunity to help.”
The union holds fundraisers year-round, collecting donations online to pay for the coats that cost about $20 each based on size. Donations can be made online at operationwarm.org/spokane-valley.
As winter approaches, donation bins appear in the lobbies of all 10 Spokane Valley Fire Department stations so people can drop off donations of brand-new coats.
Niebuhr said the group is unable to accept used coats.
“We don’t have any way to process and collect used coats at this time,” Niebuhr said.
The group donated 325 coats in its inaugural year and the number has steadily increased. Last year, 600 coats were handed out; this year, they hope to hand out 700, Niebuhr said. The coats are ordered through the national Operation Warm program, which contracts with a nonprofit manufacturer to make the coats.
The Central Valley, East Valley and West Valley school districts each pick their highest need schools, where forms are usually sent home to parents asking if there is a need for a winter coat. The parents provide the size and gender of their child and coats are ordered in a variety of colors so there’s a selection, Niebuhr said.
“They’re pretty cool colors,” he said. “It’s a very personalized program.”
As with all things, Operation Warm looks different this year. Usually, firefighters will visit each school they are helping to meet the students and help them try on their new coats to make sure they fit. But because of this year’s pandemic, firefighters are simply dropping them off for schools to distribute.
On Friday, Niebuhr dropped off dozens of coats at Trent Elementary and Trentwood Elementary. The schools didn’t distribute forms to parents this year and just asked for a selection of sizes.
“I just gave them a big coat variety,” he said.
He said he misses being able to meet the kids receiving the coats.
“It’s always a good feeling,” he said. “These kids are always so excited to get a brand-new winter coat.”
CV School District public information specialist Tanya Conklin helps coordinate the coat deliveries. She said the district usually selects elementary schools with high rates of students receiving free or reduced lunch to receive coats. Last year, the district received 175 coats. It hopes to get at least 150 this year, she said.
“It has been very fabulous to provide our students a brand-new coat,” she said. “They’re actually really great coats, too. They’re really high quality.”
On Friday, Conklin was contacted by a school that had a student who did not have a winter coat. The student attends a school that Niebuhr wasn’t scheduled to help this year, but Conklin called him anyway.
“He happened to have a coat in that size,” she said. “Within an hour, that student had a new coat.”
Conklin said she appreciates the firefighters spending their time to help students.
“We are just so thankful we have their support,” she said.
Niebuhr has been trying to expand the program as much as possible. He hopes to help students at 12 elementary schools this year, an all-time high. He also brings coats to Pope Francis Haven and Sisters Haven, which house formerly homeless families.
“They’re a very high-need population,” he said.
For the first time, Niebuhr also has plans to help students at a local high school. The Dishman Hills High School is an alternative school in the West Valley School District. “Last year, 99.2% of their students were classified as low income and 18.6% were classified as homeless,” he said.
He wants to continue to grow the annual fundraising effort because he knows the need for winter coats is still not being met.
“We have a lot of local need we’d like to work our way up to,” he said.
– Nina Culver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.