While waiting in a line before sorting through hundreds of coats, 9-year-old Madisyn Fleener showed off her old winter coat, which she had outgrown and barely fit.

Her grandmother, Theresa Kennedy, had brought Madisyn to Operation Bundle Up, an annual winter coat giveaway run by the United Way of Johnson County to get her a new one. Madisyn was looking forward to getting a new coat — perhaps one with rainbow colors — and wanted to get a pair of mittens as well.

Kennedy has had custody of three of her grandchildren for about four years. Their mother was sent to prison, leaving Kennedy with the choice of taking care of the kids or having them placed in foster care. For Kennedy, who has been both widowed and divorced, taking care of three kids has been an incredible challenge, but one that has been worthwhile, she said.

“It means everything to keep the family together,” Kennedy said.

Last year, she lost her job, home and car, and ended up spending about nine months in a homeless shelter in Marion County with the kids, before getting housing in Franklin through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She’s looking for work, but for now is relying on food stamps and assistance from organizations such as the United Way to help makes ends meet, she said.

This year, the United Way gathered nearly 1,600 new and gently used coats, along with hats, gloves, mittens and scarves, to give away to local children. In the past decade, more than 12,000 coats have been given away to families in need, United Way of Johnson County Executive Director Nancy Lohr Plake said.

Coats left over will be passed to other organizations so families that weren’t able to make it to the event will have another opportunity to get warm winter gear, Plake said.

With temperatures dipping near or below freezing overnight, the need for warm coats, hats and gloves was on the minds of dozens families lined up at Turning Point Church on Thursday afternoon, about an hour before the doors were set to open.

Turnout tends to be better when cold weather already has arrived, because that means getting proper winter clothing will be on the minds of parents and grandparents, Plake said.

Kennedy said she didn’t know how she would pay for coats for three kids without the United Way program.

“I wouldn’t have had the money,” she said.

Kennedy appreciates the help she has received from the community, and hopes that she will have the opportunity to help others in the future, she said.

For Valerie Schlenz, a single mother of four kids, ranging from a 1-year-old daughter to an 8-year-old boy, getting coats means she’ll have money for a Thanksgiving meal and Christmas gifts.

Schlenz, of Greenwood, lost her job last month. She found a new job, which she starts Wednesday, but the time off work put a strain on her finances, she said.

About 100 volunteers were at the church for two shifts, checking people’s IDs, helping families navigate through rows of coats and playing with kids while their parents searched for clothing, Plake said.

Danny Goggans, a freshman at Franklin College, was helping families bag up their coats and winter items. He was part of a class of students who were volunteering, and wanted the opportunity to get to know people in the Franklin community and help those in need, he said.

By the numbers

Here is how many coats the United Way of Johnson County has collected and distributed for Operation Bundle Up the past five years. Coats not given out are taken to other local organizations who can give the items to families who need them.

Year;coats collected;coats distributed;families helped

2017;1,584

2016;1,880;887;150

2015;1,522;988;171

2014;1,743;1,337;241

2013;1,801;826;222

SOURCE: United Way of Johnson County

Author photo
Jacob Tellers is a reporter at the Daily Journal. He can be reached at jtellers@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2702.