By Brandon Martin
Over the past 25 years, thousands of youngsters in Henry County have been kept safe from the bite of the winter months due to the annual Coat Drive For Kids.
At the drive’s onset, economic conditions closely resembled those of today, according to organizer Debra Parsons Buchanan.
“Before I got elected, I was really involved with the schools and quite often I saw a need,” Buchanan said. “People were struggling, we were dealing with NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and factories closing around us.”
In 1995, the unemployment rate in Henry County was 7.1 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This left approximately 2,055 people out of work.
Buchanan, who now serves as Vice-Chairman of the Henry County Board of Supervisors over the Horsepasture District, said that she didn’t want youngsters to bear the brunt of the economic instability.
“Children couldn’t help the fact that their parents might not have enough money to get around,” she said. “All the while, they are growing and getting bigger–in need of new coats. They didn’t understand that their parents were doing as much as they could do. Children don’t understand their circumstances but they were still cold so I wanted to do something about it.”
To address the need, Buchanan said she began the drive in her own house. She collected her family member’s used coats, washed them and donated the items. Buchanan said it wasn’t long before friends, churches and other community-oriented groups joined the effort.
“Over the years, it grew and became sort of a community partnership,” Buchanan said.
Initially, Buchanan said she only partnered with local elementary schools such as Fieldale, Spencer-Penn and GW Carver.
The coat drive exploded in popularity since, Buchanan said.
“In Henry County for the past three years, all children have received a brand new coat,” she said, adding that thousands of coats have been donated over the years. “I couldn’t even begin to count.”
The drive is needed as much as ever this year with the local unemployment rate sitting at approximately 7.4 percent and 1,798 people out of work, as the country continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic.
Buchanan hopes the community will once again come through; crediting local churches, the Henry-Martinsville Department of Social Services, the Salvation Army and One Hour Martinizing for the drive’s past success.
“I’m very fortunate that the community got so involved,” Buchanan said. “The churches have been absolutely wonderful and I can’t say enough about Avery Mills, over at One Hour Martinizing, who cleans all of the donated coats each year, free of charge.”
Not all of the donated coats are sized for children, according to Buchanan, who said the oversized coats still find new homes.
“Early on, I also partnered with the Horsepasture Rescue Squad, and they interact with more than just the schools,” Buchanan said. “With all the different donations, we’ve also been fortunate enough to give to adults. Anybody could come in and get one.”
As the 25th anniversary approaches for her cause, Buchanan said she feels “blessed” to have received so much support.
“It’s humbling to realize there are so many caring people in the community that are willing to help,” she said. “I’ve even seen people that weren’t really in the position to help, still reach out and donate. I consider myself truly blessed that this wonderful program has lasted this long.”
These days, Buchanan said she even gets to see the faces of some of the youngsters that she’s helped in the past.
“I’ve actually had parents that received coats when they were younger, who now have their own children that are getting coats,” Buchanan said. “It’s a special feeling. It’s something that seems so insignificant to you or I but it can make a huge difference in the life of a child.”
Coats are only one part of the equation for Buchanan, who also spearheaded another annual drive, Shoes for the Soul.
That project began in 2000 and provides tennis shoes for local youngsters. Buchanan said the drive for shoes will begin in November.
Those looking to donate to the Coats for Kids Drive may drop items off at Hollywood Cinema or One Hour Martinizing on Rives Road. The deadline for donations is Nov. 30.