By Mark Young
You could see the pain in her eyes as she walked back and forth along the sidewalk of Turning Points, 701 17th Ave. W., in downtown Bradenton.
When asked her name and if she was OK, she averted eye contact, gave a quick nod of her head and whispered, “Allison.”
Allison was at Turning Points, the area’s sole full service homeless agency on Saturday morning. It was a cool December morning, a perfect setting for the annual One Warm Coat giveaway.
Allison appeared hesitant and it was clear she wanted to steer away from the gathering crowd of other homeless people and low-income families waiting for new winter clothing. It also was clear she wanted – and needed – a new coat, hat, gloves and a scarf that were being offered to everyone who came.
I observed Allison for a while as she made several attempts to get into line and watched as some internal fear kept driving her away from the crowd. She would walk onto the property toward the line, stop and walk outside the fence line again and again.
I lost sight of Allison and she never spoke further to me, but I did see her again as I was leaving the event. Allison wearing a brand new winter coat and a warm hat as she held tight to her new gloves and scarf.
The difference was that now she was smiling as she quickly walked away.
If you’ve ever wanted to know the impact your donation makes on someone you’ll never meet, Allison is an example, but there are so many other untold stories where you are making the difference.
That is the emotional impact of the annual Turning Points event – as simple as the concept may be – on people in our community who consider the purchase of a warm coat a luxury.
That simple concept of collecting new and like new coats has turned into one of Manatee County’s most spirited holiday charitable events.
Hundreds of families and individuals came on Saturday, each one with a story of struggle and hardship. There were many young mothers with babies and toddlers in tow lined up before the event began at 9 a.m.
Children were jumping up and down, giggling with excitement in knowing they would soon have a new winter coat. It was a lot like watching children in line at the mall waiting to see Santa Claus, but there are obvious differences.
While a lot of those children may be lining up to ask Santa for a new Playstation game or iPad, these children were just happy to have something that will keep them warm.
Everyone was greeted at the giveaway with smiles, hugs and offered a unique shopping experience where they walked away with new coats, hats, gloves and scarves that completed an entire matching outfit.
The crowd was full of homeless, young migrant families and those who are still struggling to live paycheck to paycheck stemming from hardships created in the early days and months of the pandemic.
Among them was Buena Bean, who lost her job when the pandemic struck. She has struggled to get back on her feet, but she was quick to acknowledge that her story isn’t unique during these difficult times.
“Look around at all these single moms, single dads, males and females coming out to get a jacket,” Bean said. “I lost everything during the pandemic so I’m starting all over.”
Despite the hardship, Bean is grateful for the help and what little she has left to her name. As she continues to look for work, she spends most of her time volunteering to help others. Anything new at this point is a tremendous help and bonus in her life.
“So I appreciate what they are doing here,” she said. “With everything all of us have been going through the last two years with COVID, God’s grace has come so we are grateful for this.”
This year, Turning Points and their partners were able to collect more than 1,500 coats and accessories. The abundance is due to a growing number of agency partners and the tremendous response from the community to make this event a success.
From the single person who digs into their closet for that unused coat, to area students conducting coat drives, to other organizations like The Blessing Bags Project, this year’s event featured the most winter clothing ever collected.
It’s just one of the events Blessing Bags co-founder and president Betsy Plante focuses on throughout the year, but it’s an event that she plans for all year long with her team at theblessingbagsproject.org.
Plante scours the winter sales and uses dollars raised through her organization that helps the homeless to buy new coats at discounted rates. She also has partnered with a newly opened Lakewood Ranch branch of Restore Global, which collects, restores and sells clothing to nonprofits for pennies on the dollar.
In all, Blessing Bags was able to contribute 500 new coats to this year’s cause.
“People look forward to this,” Plante said. “And it’s not just us, of course. All of the nonprofit agencies get involved and that’s what I love about Manatee County is that we all work together. I think that’s really magical.”
Plante said many of the people her agency works with are struggling in housing that either doesn’t have heat or they must choose between turning on a heater and putting food on the table.
“So a lot of these kids are freezing,” she said.
It’s a point Cheryl Hedger, director of volunteer services for Turning Points emphasized as well.
“If you think about Florida being the Sunshine State, you don’t think about the cold, but there are many days and nights this time of year where the temperature really gets down,” Hedger said. “People cannot afford to go out and buy a winter coat to accommodate that weather.”
Hedger is largely responsible for the Manatee County annual One Warm Coat giveaway. She signed Turning Points up with the national organization and the homeless services center has been doing the event ever since.
From 600 coats in the first year to 1,500 this year is quite the growth spurt, but unfortunately that growth spurt is needed to keep up with the demand.
“There is a great need right now,” Hedger said. “We are seeing that everywhere. Go to the food pantries and you see a huge need. You’ll see here at Turning Points there is an ever increasing need for our services.”
Donations for the One Warm Coat giveaway are taken throughout the year at Turning Points. Just let them know at their donation drop-off center or at the reception desk that your donation is for that event.
Other things are always needed to include clothes, bikes, jeans, T-shirts, new underwear and socks and personal hygiene products.