It was a day of giving and hope on Thursday at Newark’s Louise A. Spence Elementary School, as members of the Newark Fire Officers Union IAFF Local 1860, the Newark Fire Department and the Office of Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins joined forces to bring warmth and smiles to 174 kindergarten and first grade students.
The initiative is part of Operation Warm, a national nonprofit organization that provides custom-made winter coats to thousands of kids across the country each year. Since its inception in 1998, millions of coats have been handed out to kids in need through partnerships with communities and partners united for a greater cause.
Program partners include civil servants, municipal clubs, local businesses and corporate sponsors who work to identify children in need, deliver coats to children and assist with funding, volunteering and marketing.
The program works with manufacturers to create thoughtfully designed winter coats, complete with deep pockets, warm hoods and a soft fleece lining, with several different styles and colors for kids to choose from to give them the shopping experience.
Anthony Tarantino, president of the Newark Fire Officers Union, said the organization got involved with the Operation Warm program four years ago and has been going strong ever since.
“It’s an amazing initiative for the kids in Newark,” Tarantino said. “These kids don’t want to take these coats off and they have smiles from ear to ear. We’ve been doing it four years in a row and we choose a different ward each year. We try to pick schools in those areas that are the least privileged.”
Tarantino, a native Newarker, said he makes it a point to drive through the city’s neighborhoods in order to identify need.
“I drive around the city and I see kids that don’t have proper coats to wear,” he said.
The firefighters visit the school a month prior to the event for fittings of each student to ensure a perfect fit.
Chaneyfield Jenkins, who reached out to the firefighters and helped secure funding for the program, lauded the firefighters for their hard work and generosity.
“All the credit truly goes to the Newark firefighters,” she said. “They gave me the opportunity to pick a school in Newark to provide coats. Because of their generosity, I was able to do this.”
Other sponsors include Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, the Joe and Martha Chaneyfield Foundation, former Newark Mayor Sharpe James and several local businesses.
“These men and women risk their lives every day,” Chaneyfield Jenkins said of the firefighters. “They go above and beyond for these children.”
Chaneyfield Jenkins described the heartwarming scene as the coats were handed out to students.
“To see the young children come into the auditorium and having their names called out and getting their coats—the look on their faces is priceless,” she said. “They were jumping around and showing off their coats. The firefighters do it in such a dignified way. Just because you’re in need doesn’t mean you don’t have dignity.”
Danny Farrell, a firefighter with the Newark Fire Dept. who also runs the department’s United Civil Servants Association, said the day is a memorable one.
“How many other words besides ‘phenomenal’ do you want to hear?” he said. “To see that look of anticipation on the kids’ faces, their necks straining to see and then they come and you’re putting these jackets on them—there’s nothing like it. It’s 900 degrees in the gym and they don’t want to take their jackets off.”
Farrell noted the efforts of Chaneyfield Jenkins.
“I compliment Councilwoman Chaneyfield Jenkins,” he said. “We’re a big fan of hers and she’s a big fan of ours. She gets it.”
Chaneyfield Jenkins said her dream is to spread the word about the initiative and get others involved.
“I would love to publicize it so that other people can contribute to kids that are disadvantaged,” she said. “I am so proud of our fire department. They are public servants who go above and beyond what they have to do. I’m just so grateful that we can all come together for this because any of us could be in this situation.”
Farrell said the fire department plans on partnering with the program for a long time to come.
“How do you lose with a day like today?” he said just after the event. “We’re going to be a part of this every year. That’s what the fire department is all about.”
Chaneyfield Jenkins expressed gratitude to all involved.
“I'm so grateful to the city hall employees in any capacity for going out of their way because this is what it’s supposed to be about,” she said. “It’s about public service.”
For more information visit www.operationwarm.org