Kathy Wyatt was delivering coats to a school for the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office's Grizzly Warm Clothes and Coats for Kids program when a school social worker told her about a second-grade boy who'd been absent for a couple days. The boy's teacher was surprised because he usually loved school, so she called his mother.
"The mom felt really embarrassed because he had no boots and literally owned only one pair of shoes, and they had fallen apart," says Wyatt, executive assistant to Washtenaw County sheriff Jerry Clayton. "She couldn't send him to school in the cold because his shoes had fallen apart, and if she bought him boots, they wouldn't be able to pay the rent on time."
Because local residents also donate money as well as hats, gloves, and coats, Wyatt was able to immediately go out and buy the boy boots and a 10-pack of socks, and he was back in school the next day. The sheriff's office also permanently added boots to the list of warm clothing it collects and passes out each winter.
Wyatt's story is just one of many heartbreaking stories that have inspired Ypsilanti-area churches, schools, and nonprofits to organize warm clothing drives for the colder months.
The sheriff's office launched Grizzly Warm Clothes and Coats for Kids in 2013 as a collaborative effort with United Way Washtenaw (UW Washtenaw) to provide winter clothing to Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) students. UW Washtenaw's clothing drive, called Washtenaw Cares, has been teaming up with the Grizzly clothing drive since 2015 to collect additional hats, gloves, mittens, scarves, and boots for YCS students. Grizzly Warm Clothes and Coats for Kids accepts new or clean, gently used items for any age, while Washtenaw Cares only accepts new items for children in preschool through high school.
Donations will be accepted at every county building; the YCS Clothes Closet at Chapelle Elementary, 111 S. Wallace Blvd. in Ypsi Township; and UW Washtenaw at 2305 Platt Rd. in Ann Arbor through late December. The sheriff's office will continue to collect items at 2201 Hogback Rd. in Pittsfield Township and distribute warm clothing items through early January.
Amanda Reel, community impact and volunteer center manager for UW Washtenaw, says Washtenaw Cares benefits from a partnership with Communication Workers of America, Local 4123; and United Auto Workers, Local 898. The labor organizations run the drives that bring in the clothing, and then UW Washtenaw gathers the items to be distributed by the sheriff's office.
"We try to leverage those partnerships, and the people working at those organizations find it a great way to plug in and give back" to the community, Reel says.
The YCS Clothes Closet runs two donation drives each year. The winter one runs through mid-December and serves families with children enrolled in YCS by appointment or during walk-in hours three times a week. After opening last November, the clothes closet helped about 100 families over the course of the school year. Those interested in the YCS Clothes Closet can contact Tasha Palmer at (734) 419-4065.
Additionally, local churches run warm clothing programs throughout the calendar year. The clothes closet at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, 1043 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsi, is open for walk-ins on Friday mornings. Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 201 N. River St. in Ypsi, also offers a clothes closet.
"Our clothes closet is open year round, so come in anytime and we will help you out," says Emmanuel Lutheran clothes closet coordinator Linda King.
She says that while many warm clothing drives are aimed at kids, the Clothes Closet carries items for adults as well.
"We have clothes for all ages and all sizes," King says. "If people give us a 3X men's coat, we'll put it in our closet."
King notes that the church's clothes closet closes on holiday weeks, so if anyone is interested in using the closet or donating to it, they should check the church's website to see if it's open that week. She notes that the church accepts and distributes other household items and even medical items like crutches and walkers. She says the church website is updated with announcements about items the church especially needs or items they have too much of, as when the church had to make room for 20 donated walkers.
Wyatt says that while there are dire pockets of poverty in Ypsilanti, there are "a lot of really good people out there."
"One lady called me up a few months ago and said she was at a store and saw really nice coats marked down 80 percent and asked if we would take them," Wyatt says. "She brought me 26 coats, brand new."
Last year, a man observed Wyatt buying coats for the drive at Meijer and asked her why. When Wyatt arrived at checkout she found that the man had given the cashier $100 to help pay for the purchase.
Wyatt says education is "the huge equalizer," but kids won't do well in school if the community doesn't address how poverty affects children's performance in school.
"At the sheriff's office, we see what happens when people don't get an education and don't get opportunities," she says. "How our children do determines their futures but also impacts public safety, the economy, development, and quality of life in our communities. Helping is the smart thing and also the right thing to do."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the interim project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.