ONEONTA ROTARY REDOUBLES EFFORT
Editor’s Note: To donate to “Operation Warm,” send checks to Oneonta Rotary Fund, Box 1122, Oneonta, NY 13620. For tax deduction, write “Operation Warm” in the memo line.
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – A decade of Operation Warm has created a decade of warm memories.
“The pride of ownership is something new for a lot of the kids,” said Oneonta Rotarian Dave Mattice. A National Weather observer, he recalled the club’s first distribution – 40 coats – happened the week before Thanksgiving 2009, and temperatures were in the 50s.
It began by happenstance; or maybe it’s providential.
In 2009, Oneonta Rotarian Sam Koury, then district governor, returned from the national convention with the idea for a new program: Raise money, and use the funds to buy winter coats for needy youngsters.
Each year, Rotary club presidents – there are 33,000 clubs worldwide – pick a Presidential Project to mark their administrations. That year, Chad Smith, the Medical Coaches vice president, liked what he heard.
Each year, the Oneonta club allocates $1,000 for the President’s Project, and Smith used the money to buy 40 coats and launch Operation Warm locally.
Oneonta’s Riverside Elementary was the first beneficiary. “Tears were rolling down their cheeks – teachers and kids,” said Mattice.
The Rotarians were hooked. For the next few years, the Oneonta Rotary Fund, the club’s 501(c)(3), and contributions from club members kept the program alive. That just $100 could keep four kids warm all winter was an appealing idea.
In 2015-16, things picked up. Rotarian Laura Dohner wrote a grant application that won a one-time District 7170 grant $2,500.
“That’s when it got expanded – to 180-200 coats a year,” said 2015-16 club President David Rowley, then recently retired Oneonta City Schools’ interim superintendent. In Christmas 2016, the coats were distributed under the presidency of Dan Maskin, OFO executive director.
Also that Christmas, the Oneonta club’s Marie Lusins, who was also first female District 7170 governor, attended a Christmas play at Schenectady’s Proctor Theater. During the intermission, she saw a queue. It was a charity raising funds by raffling off state Lottery Scratch-Off tickets.
She brought back that idea back to Mattice, then 2017-18 club president. “Wow,” he said, “this might be our way to raise $2,500,” the amount covered by the grant the year before. “Lo and behold, we raised $4,000.
The Rotarians sold raffle tickets, and also set up a booth at the Hometown Fourth of July, the Susquehanna Balloon Fest, and the Grand & Glorious Tag Sale, where the winning ticket was pulled.
“Since then,” Mattice said, “we’ve been doing $4,000 a year – 180-200 coats.” “We” is the club’s Operation Warm Committee: Mattice, Rowley, Chad Smith, Cindy Struckle and Lynne Sessions, all past presidents, with the help of club members generally.
The fall of 2017, the local club hosted the Rotary District 7170 convention at SUNY Oneonta, the club members were delighted to receive the district’s Helping Hands Award for Operation Warm.
The Oneonta club’s success has been mirrored nationally, even internationally, since Dick Sanford of the Longwood Club in Kennett Square, Pa., notice coat-less children shivering at a school-bus stop and launched the original effort; that club bought 58 coats that year.
Today, over 270 Rotary Clubs in more than 95 districts have partnered with Operation Warm, over the past 22 years providing coats to more than 300,000 students.
Mattice said the coats are fabricated in a non-profit factory in Wisconsin, and are partly made from a fabric created from recycled plastic bottles. “The kids get to pick the color,” he said.
Every fall, the coats, individually sealed in plastic, arrive at Medical Coaches warehouse near Emmons, and club members ferry them to Riverside Elementary, where they are distributed to all Oneonta schools. Last year, all eligible K-5 Laurens Central youngsters received coats, said Rowley, plus some in Milford and Schenevus.
“It’s a great cooperative effort,” he continued. “The schools do a great job of identifying the kids. Our job is to raise the money, get the coats ordered and get them distributed.”
This year, with COVID-19, “we think the need is going to be even greater,” said Rowley. What’s more, the usual Scratch-Off venues – the Fourth of July, balloon fest and tag sale – have been cancelled.
At it happens, Mattice’s son, Dan, Reinhardt Home Heating president, is on the Rotary Fund board, and he’s pledged a matching grant: If the club can raise $3,000, Reinhardt will match it, for a total of $6,000.
That would be a record.
The goal: to have 300 coats ready for distribution this year. “We’re prepared,” said the father, whose dream is to eventually provide a warm coat for any Otsego County youngster who lacks one.
Reinhardt’s company slogan is “We make warm friends.” Talk about happenstance. Or is it providential?