In 1998, right before Christmas, a recently retired Chester County entrepreneur saw a newspaper article that incensed him - and ultimately inspired a thriving charitable crusade.
Richard D. Sanford said he was shocked to read that many children in Kennett Square were suffering from the cold because they had no winter coats. "I remember thinking, 'This is absurd,' " Sanford said recently.
So the Chadds Ford resident did some fast research and learned that the children of migrant mushroom workers were indeed shivering in one of the state's most affluent areas - right near Longwood Gardens.
He then visited a clothing store in downtown Kennett, where he asked to buy its inventory of 58 children's coats. The clerk dismissed him as "a local nut," Sanford recalled, and referred him to the owner.
"He had questions, too," Sanford said. "But he said he was about to go out of town, and if I was serious, I should come back after the holidays."
Sanford did, inaugurating Operation Warm, a nonprofit organization that has distributed about 600,000 new coats to needy children nationwide since its inception.
"When I saw the excitement of the children, and their parents, it had a profound impact on me," Sanford said of his first distribution.
Eager to do more, he shared his experience with the Longwood Rotary Club, where he was a member. The following year, 450 Chester County children received new winter coats.
George Russell, who was a member of the Longwood Rotary at the time but now lives in Delaware, said Sanford, known for touting the accomplishments of others, offered a simple solution to a pressing need.
"My wife taught in Kennett Square, and she would talk about how Mexican families would buy one big coat and share it," Russell said. "If you have the right project, people will contribute."
To avoid the stigma of a charity handout, the coats must be new and represent different styles, Sanford said.
"I'm not going to make all the kids in the same blue coat stand out," Sanford said.
He says he believes the program boosts the children's self-esteem, even if his evidence - the kids' reactions, in some cases to their first new attire - is unscientific.
In October, an article about Operation Warm appeared on the Rotary International Web site, stating that 60 Rotaries across the country have participated in the program. The number keeps increasing, Sanford said.
"Clubs responded favorably because Rotary is all about assisting the disadvantaged in our communities," Sanford said.
But Rotary is just one of Sanford's myriad partners.
For the second year, the Auto Dealers CARing for Kids Foundation of Philadelphia collaborated with Operation Warm on Driving Away the Cold. The program supplements a donation for 10,000 coats with a month of pledges from participating dealers to fund a coat for every vehicle sold.
Kevin Mazzucola, the foundation's executive director, called the partnership a winning combination of resources, citing the 2009 total of 17,878 underprivileged children who received coats.
"Even in our wildest dreams, we didn't think it would be so successful," Mazzucola said.
The dealers' foundation then broadened its scope, collaborating with Philadelphia Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who had been running Warmth in Winter, a 10-year program providing children with hats, scarves, and gloves.
For his part, Sanford, 66, constantly seeks new ways to keep Operation Warm (www.operationwarm.org) engaging, efficient, and expanding.
A former executive vice president of Commodore International, Sanford branched out in 1982, creating Intelligent Electronics, a micro-products wholesaler with annual sales that once topped $3.6 billion. In 1998, Xerox purchased the firm and a subsidiary for $415 million.
But rather than spend retirement relaxing on the Chester County property he shares with Sheila, his wife of 25 years, Sanford began building another empire.
The Sanford Foundation, created in 1998 to support disadvantaged children, generated one of the state's first charter schools, the Chester County Family Academy. The foundation was the sole funding source for Operation Warm during its first three years, Sanford said.
"I went from working a zillion hours a week to working a zillion hours a week," he said. "I don't care what you do [for a living] - help someone else; it's great stuff."
One of the first cost-cutting changes Sanford made for Operation Warm was to order directly from a manufacturer. He also works with the apparel industry to capitalize on factory overruns.
Sanford said organizations interested in providing coats to children - and they have ranged from the Salvation Army to churches to sororities - raise funds and place orders.
The nonprofit group also accepts individual donations, he said, adding that the coats are produced for $15 apiece.
Sanford, a father of five and grandfather of two, exudes enthusiasm for his project. But his smile gets even broader when he discusses two of his latest endeavors: student partnerships and green initiatives.
"We want to get students involved, and we'd like to build young philanthropists," he said.
In programs organized by students from Villanova University and the University of Pennsylvania, recycled plastic bottles are used to create the coats, Sanford said. That process spawned an environmental curriculum by Francis Galgano Jr., who heads Villanova's department of geography and the environment.
Sanford, a board member at the Brandywine Museum and Conservancy, said the lessons are designed to be used by the college volunteers, who offer the targeted elementary-school student a creative swap to reinforce conservation values: a plastic bottle for a coat.
As Operation Warm's chairman and chief operating officer, Sanford has resisted increasing the staff as the program has grown.
"I'd rather put a coat on a kid," he explained.
He said he relies heavily on a paid staff of nine - especially Kim Fremont Fortunato, the group's president - and a passel of volunteers and interns. And he frets daily about keeping the momentum going.
A recent addition to the coats is an inside label, where children can print their name. Fortunato said that detail came in response to children's question: "When do I have to give it back?"
Seeing the joy on children's faces never gets stale, Sanford said, describing a Philadelphia middle-school student after donning her new apparel.
"She pirouetted around the room, saying, 'I am the happiest girl in the world,' " he said. "What's better than that?"