Operation Warm is a nonprofit dedicated to providing children with warmth, hope and happiness. The Chicago Public Library system serves all Chicagoans with opportunities to gather, learn and be transformed. If these two forces joined, what could become possible for children across the city?
300 winter coats, 600 free books: @OperationWarm + @ChiPubLib give to #Chicago kids thru #ChiTrustActingUp
Last May, they got together to find out. Operation Warm hosted a brainstorming lunch as part of On the Table—an annual event convened by The Chicago Community Trust that welcomes people from across the region to gather in small groups for a shared meal, a candid conversation, and a new sense of connection.
“On the Table is a fantastic platform for coming together to identify simple collaborative actions that can be taken to improve communities,” said Rich Lalley, Operation Warm’s development director.
Based on the ideas brainstormed at their On the Table lunch, Operation Warm and the Chicago Public Library envisioned a collaborative coat and book giveaway. Their goal was to provide 150 children from low-income families with a brand new winter coat and two new books to take home.
By serving as the distribution point for these giveaways, neighborhood public libraries would have an opportunity to welcome families inside and introduce them to the services available there.
“The issue of improving literacy and a love of books as one plank for addressing poverty kept surfacing,” Lalley explained. “So, someone said, why not attract kids living in poverty to neighborhood libraries by gifting Operation Warm coats at the library?”
The team applied for an Acting Up award: a small grant program at the Trust designed to put fuel in the tank of great ideas born at On the Table and power them forward. Their project was selected as a winner, and the Acting Up award—together with funding from Rotary Club of Winnetka-Northfield and Kiwanis Club of Chicago South East—put the giveaway partnership into action last fall.
Through a grant from the Union Stagehands Local #2, Operation Warm was able to double the pilot program, setting an even more ambitious goal to reach 300 children at two locations.
Chicago Public Library’s director of children’s services and family engagement, Liz McChesney, selected two South Side branches to host the pilot programs: Bessie Coleman and Chicago Lawn. They created giveaway days packed with interactive fun and learning experiences from live children’s music by Scribblemonster, to inventor David L. Hoyt’s giant educational floor games.
The Museum of Science and Industry presented an engineering project, where kids built bridges from drinking straws. Puppet storyteller Marilyn Price provided entertainment—and each child designed and colored a coat for the puppets, to match his or her own new winter coat.
At the end of two busy, bustling days, Operation Warm had given away 600 children’s books, and 300 winter coats. Moreover, they had proven their theory that the gift of a brand new coat is a powerful motivator that will bring families to a library, often for the first time. On the day of the giveaway, attendance at the Chicago Lawn branch soared to 250% above the previous Saturday.
With a successful pilot complete, the partners are taking the lessons they learned and crafting an expanded program that builds on their success. Operation Warm will begin soliciting funding in Chicago and other urban markets utilizing this model. Here in Chicago, the Forum Fund—a donor advised fund housed at the Trust—has already committed funding for programs at eight libraries next winter.
As Lalley said, “This has turned into a new Operation Warm program platform that again demonstrates how a coat can be more than a coat.”
And meanwhile, local families continue to feel the benefit. During last winter’s giveaways, the two host branches issued 116 new library cards—increasing the odds that children and parents alike will return to borrow books and take advantage of educational programs, to keep the learning alive all year.