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Firefighters warm up Lockport children with coat donations

LOCKPORT – The children of the John E. Pound Early Childhood Center seemed most excited about a chance to explore a fire engine Friday morning, but their parents might be more pleased with the new winter coats some of them received.

A delegation of City of Lockport firefighters visited the preschool as part of Operation Warm, an effort by the Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association to assist underprivileged children in staying warm this winter.

Operation Warm is a national not-for-profit agency, and this is the first year the Lockport firefighters have taken part.

Lt. Ben Lesold said, “Operation Warm says that any child eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches shows evidence of poverty.”

And the numbers in Lockport are on the increase.

School Superintendent Michelle T. Bradley said 58 percent of Lockport students, a record number, are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. “Every year it keeps creeping up,” she said.

Lesold said that 102 children would receive free coats this week at six Lockport schools, including the district’s four elementary schools, the Early Childhood Center, which is operated through a contract with the YWCA of Niagara, and Emmet Belknap Intermediate School.

Heather Walton, director of school health services for the district, said school nurses and the contract nurse from Buffalo Hearing and Speech Center were instrumental in selecting the children who received the coats.

“They informed the families, sent out the notices, sized up the students,” Walton said.

Lesold said families were allowed to refuse the free coat; he said the most common reason was that the child already had one. But quite a few didn’t, and Lesold said several firefighters are married to school employees.

“We understand the need. It’s a wonderful program to take part in,” he said. “Every school has a coat closet where they collect coats or sweatshirts.”

Those garments are lent to children who might not be dressed warmly enough to go on an outdoor activity or a field trip.

Bradley said the Barge Canal Optimist Club of Lockport makes monthly donations of hats, scarves and mittens to Lockport children, under the leadership of former teacher and Board of Education member Renee Knight.

The children taking part in the coat program were brought to the John E. Pound gymnasium and were able to take coats in the proper size from boxes brought into the building by firefighters. Then a firefighter would write the child’s name inside the coat with an indelible black marker.

Lesold said, “It’s more than a coat. A brand new coat does more than keep them warm. It increases their self-esteem. Their attendance is better.”

“Yellow’s my favorite,” said Aaron Fuller, 4, who received a coat of that color.

“My mom told me I could have orange,” said Edwin Tupper, 4, who ended up with a red coat.

“I got orange,” said Autumn Whalen, 4. “Pink is my favorite color.”

But she was pleased with her new pink knit gloves, and she was first to climb into the fire engine, too.

Lesold said the firefighters paid $34 for each of the American-made coats. They raised money from 18 local businesses, and from public donations at events such as the Optimist Club Arts and Crafts Show, the Taste of Lockport and the Fire Department’s Community Day picnic.