The second grader at Chester County Family Academy looked at the box of new winter coats and hesitated. She glanced at Norma Feliciano, a classroom aide, who encouraged her to select a coat she really liked.
"Whatever coat you choose will be yours," Feliciano told her. "You do not have to share it with anybody."
The little girl tried on a pink and purple coat with an faux fur-trimmed hood. "Can I really take it home?" she asked. Feliciano nodded. She knew that the girl's father recently had been deported to Mexico and that she was living with an aunt who was struggling to make ends meet.
"Many of our children get their coats from places like the Salvation Army," Feliciano said, "but thanks to Operation Warm, they get coats that weren't given away just because people didn't want them anymore. It's more exciting to get a new coat. When the boxes arrive, it's like Christmas."
For the last 12 years, Operation Warm has provided more than 700 coats to the academy, a charter school in West Chester that caters to "financially challenged" families, said Lorraine Andersen, the academy's founder and chief administrative officer.
"Kids cannot believe they are getting a bright, colorful brand-new coat," Andersen said. "The children say, 'Hey, this coat smells brand new,' and 'I never had a coat like this.' "
Operation Warm, the brainchild of Kennett Square entrepreneur and philanthropist Dick Sanford, has distributed more than 375,000 coats to impoverished children and their families since its founding in 1998.
According to Kim Fremont Fortunato, the organization's president, Sanford started Operation Warm after reading in a local paper that children were "freezing at a bus stop because they did not have winter coats."
Sanford immediately went to a local department store and bought 58 coats to distribute to needy children in his community.
This year, Operation Warm, which relies primarily on monetary donations, has distributed 126,000 coats to nonprofit organizations and government agencies all over the country, Fortunato said. About 50,000 coats were given to needy children in the Philadelphia area.
In Chester County, 43 organizations distributed 2,542 Operation Warm coats to eligible families. Participating agencies included Chester County Cares, Chester County Intermediate Unit's Head Start Program, the Coatesville Area School District, and La Comunidad Hispana, a nonprofit agency providing services to low-income families in the Latino community.
Fortunato said that a $15 donation buys one coat, which is manufactured in China. "The coats come in all shapes, colors and sizes so that children aren't getting the same kind of coat," she said.
Operation Warm also partners with corporations such as Comcast Cable, which ran a "Bundle Up and Share the Warmth" campaign in November and December to create awareness of Operation Warm through advertising, direct marketing, and customer and employee communications. Some Comcast offices organized their own coat drives as well.
Kevin Broadhurst, Comcast's Chester County director for government and community relations, said 62 winter coats were dropped off at Operation Warm's headquarters Dec. 12, thanks to Comcast employees and customers who donated new coats or the money to buy them.
Broadhurst, who is one of 10 children, had heard about Operation Warm from a coworker and immediately embraced the idea of asking Comcast employees to help children stay warm this winter.
"Our employees live and work in Chester County," he said, "and they like to give back to the community. We are very proud of our partnership with Operation Warm and very proud of our employees' willingness to contribute to this organization."
Donations are still needed to help keep children warm this winter. Anyone interested in donating to Operation Warm should call 1-800-730-WARM or visit