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Annual coat giveaway provides 1,500 people with a warmer winter

About 1,500 people are a little warmer today.

That's how many coats Paul Billoni figures he and a network of partners gave away Saturday in the first of this year's three coat giveaways.

Parkas, ponchos and pea coats, trench coats, field coats and bombers — more than 1,800 of them were wheeled into the hallways of True Bethel Baptist Church at 907 E. Ferry St. before 9 a.m.

About 300 people were waiting outside, said Billoni, president of Colvin Cleaners, which each year provides the muscle for an annual coat drive that is months in the making.

Drawn to Saturday's event were small children, long-limbed teens, moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers.

By noon, around 250 coats were left.

"You get so much by giving," Billoni's mother taught her children.

The coat giveaway has taught Billoni another lesson.

Coats 4 Kids needs more winter clothing donations

For the best coats, he says, you have to arrive early.

"This is a good thing to do," said Justiliano Colon, who lives in the Lovejoy neighborhood and was looking for good, sturdy garb for Justin, 7, and Alicia, 9. Finding free coats for his fast-growing children frees up money for other needs, he said.

It's safe to say that tens of thousands of coats have been given away over the 22 years of the Coats 4 Kids Program. Each year, families are urged to remember the coat drive as they clean out their closets. Colvin Cleaners and participating companies — Allstate, Fidelis Care, the Fitness Factory in Kenmore and Paula's Donuts — provide collection points for gently-used coats, hats, scarves and gloves. Schools and churches collect them, too.

Denard Hemphill tries a coat on as his girlfriend, Jasmine Everheart, looks on at the Colvin Cleaners Coats 4 Kids Program at True Bethel Baptist Church Saturday. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The undertaking follows the broad outlines of the Gowns for Prom program, another Colvin Cleaners-inspired effort to gather up donated dresses and distribute them for free so every high school student who needs a prom dress gets one.

Like the gowns, the coats are driven to the Colvin Cleaners location on Elmwood Avenue in Kenmore. They are inspected, laundered or dry-cleaned and given away in time for Buffalo's mighty winters.

Recipients are not expected to prove they need the coats. Anyone who arrives can leave with one. No muss, no fuss. The only limit is one coat per person.

This year, there is a heightened need. At least 100 families have arrived in the Buffalo area after Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, said Tammy Alsace, secretary of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York and co-secretary for the Hurricane Maria Relief Fund.

"Most of them have come with nothing and don't have winter coats. They are not needed there," she said. While Buffalo's temperatures were in the 30s on Saturday, they were in the 80s in Puerto Rico.

Few of the families who left Puerto Rico visited the True Bethel Church on Saturday in a search for coats. But more donated coats are in the pipeline, and Alsace figures the families who have not yet received a coat through other means will be at next week's giveaway.

It will be from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 18 at the Colvin Cleaners warehouse, 2365 Elmwood Ave. in Kenmore.

The third giveaway, also from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., will be Dec. 2 at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 36 Pierce Ave., Hamburg.

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