By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor

Pictured above following a coat distribution are (l-rt) Chris Runner, Jon Handschumacher, Mark Walsh, Neal Aldrich, Marion Watts, Frank Barberio, and Bucky Snyder with children at North View Elementary School.

Shinnston resident Mark Walsh is a Clarksburg firefighter and President of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local #89.  He spoke on behalf of the Local, saying that they are proud to be a part of a partnership with Operation Warm, a project that provides coats for elementary school children who need them.

Since IAFF began supporting this program, many local unions throughout the country have gotten involved.   Walsh said that when his local took an interest in the program, they were one of only three in West Virginia; however, now it has grown and others are starting to participate as well to help children in their own areas.

“This is our fourth year to be affiliated with this project, and I can tell you that it is something we look forward to participating in every year,” Walsh stated.  “I believe the kids look forward to seeing us each year as much as we look forward to seeing them!”

According to statistics, nearly 20% of the children in the United States live in poverty, and Walsh noted that there are more families than people realize who exist at the level here in the immediate area.  Parents fill out a confidential form if their child needs a coat to shield them from winter weather, and the schools help as well to identify the children who have a need.

“We don’t know their names and don’t need to know; all we know is that they need a coat and our objective is to fulfill that need.  When we show up at the schools, it brings a lot of smiles and that is good enough for us,” he added.  “Once in a while, we get notes from parents thanking us, saying that now that their child has suitable outerwear, they can use what money they have for other needed items for their family.  But seeing these kids so thrilled to have a new coat is really our reward.”

IAFF Local 89 volunteers started with the schools in Clarksburg such as Adamston and North View, and this year they also did Wilsonburg, Norwood and Nutter Fort. This year they distributed 225 coats in the Clarksburg area.

“Typically, we would give out about 135 coats, but the numbers were higher this year.  We visit the same local schools here because, unfortunately, their needs don’t go away.  Many families struggle and we don’t want any child to stand and wait for a bus on cold mornings without a coat,” he added.

Walsh explained that one year, their funding was rather low but their order was placed when donations became available to cover the cost of the number of coats needed.  “While we usually try to distribute the coats in mid-October before the cold weather sets in, this particular year it was into December and it was bitterly cold on our distribution day.  I remember one little girl who told us she had come to school without a coat that morning and she was so proud that she wouldn’t be without one on the way home.  That makes it all worthwhile!” he said.  “You can see the appreciation on these kids’ faces, and the schools appreciate what we do as well.”

Walsh noted that there are usually eight or nine firefighters who help with the local distribution … and often they invite some of their corporate sponsors to go along with them so they can see for themselves exactly how their money is being spent.

“Being a part of the distribution and seeing it first-hand always reaffirms the importance of the donations they have made!” he continued.  “And for some, all they have to do is see the pictures, and instead of giving $50 or $100, they will give much more.”

Walsh said they have been very fortunate to engage great community support for this project.  “We got a grant from the Dominion Foundation and that helps our local project a lot.  They are really the backbone of what allows us to keep this going, but other individuals contribute as well.  These donations help us broaden the scope of the schools and the children we reach.”

Every local that participates in the Operation Warm project has their own fundraising page on the Operation Warm website (www.operationwarm.org).  You can go there and use a credit or debit card to contribute.  But if you want to help kids right here in the local area, be sure to put operationwarm.org/Clarksburg, which ensures that your donation remains here to help local children.

“We have a contract with a factory in Kentucky and all coats are made here in the U.S.  Each coat costs $34, but people can donate any amount – $5, $10, $15.  We never turn down a contribution of any size because this is a project we want to continue with for a long time to come,” Walsh concluded.

Firefighters respond at all hours of the day and night to all sorts of incidents that threaten the people in their communities.  They are dedicated and well-trained; they battle blazes; they rescue people; they do what they do all too often without thanks.  But apart from their job, their participation in and enthusiasm for Operation Warm shows their other side.  They are simply a great group of human beings who have made it their mission to help identify children in need and see that they are warm.