A program that has been outfitting local children and adults with free winter gear for six years may fold after this season if it doesn’t find a new location from which to run its operation.
The Coats for Kids program run by Newmarket’s three Lions clubs - the North Newmarket Lions, the Newmarket Lions, and the Newmarket Lioness - has until the end of April 2020 at its current Gorham Street storefront before the building goes up for sale.
That rent-free space, where people in need can walk in and pick up new or nearly new winter coats, snow boots, hats and scarves, has been “a gift” from one of the founding members of the North Newmarket Lions, Jim Wilson.
But Wilson has retired and is selling his high-end electrical business, including the property where Coats for Kids gives about 100 warm coats and more each week to families struggling to make ends meet.
“We may have to dissolve if we can’t find somewhere to go,” Coats for Kids chairperson Leah Springford said. “We can’t afford to pay rent, we just don’t have that kind of money. We were lucky to have had a benefactor for the last six years who paid all the utilities. That’s been a real gift.”
North Newmarket Lions Club president Dave Engel said the Coats for Kids program is volunteer and donation-driven, there is no money involved.
“This is a big problem for us,” Engel said. “We need to find a new space that’s easy to get to, is accessible by transit, and we have no income for rent. We’re hoping to get a corporate sponsor or anybody with some space that allows us to store the coats and give them out for half the year from October to March.”
The need for the cold-weather wear is showing no signs of dying down.
On the store’s opening day in mid-October, there was a line-up out the door. Volunteers gave out 110 coats in three hours. This year for the first time, a second shopping day was added to coincide with the Newmarket Food Pantry hours, located across the parking lot.
Last year, about 1,500 coats were distributed to local children.
“We have a lot of new Canadians, people who are out of work, older people who are caring for young children from divorced families, they’re not all middle-incomers anymore,” he said.
Springford noted that people are also visiting the store from outside the local communities of Newmarket, Aurora, East Gwillimbury, Keswick and Richmond Hill.
“They’re coming from further down south in the North York area. We’ve had several refugee families who have just come into the country and have nothing,” she said. “We get a lot of families who come in and are worried about getting their kids coats and hats, and they’re wearing sweatshirts, it’s the mother usually. I say, ‘What about you’? And they say, ‘Oh, I’m OK’. I tell them to go and get a coat for themselves because we have adult coats, too.”
There’s no shortage of donations this year, and Coats for Kids got a boost in November in the form of a $1,000 no-strings-attached grant from the Newmarket Chamber of Commerce’s Awesome Foundation.
Volunteers purchased 32 pairs of children’s boots with the funds.
“It was great because the one thing we’re always low on is boots because kids wear their boots out so fast,” Springford said.
The foundation is made up of 10 trustees who each donate $100 of their own money each month to help make ‘awesome’ happen for an individual or group with a community-minded idea geared to youth.
And while the Lions members continue to sort through donations and stock up the coat racks at the store, a search for new donated space for next October’s opening continues.
“The one thing I find refreshing is that we have a lot of good people in this town, so hopefully we’ll find somebody with a big heart and a bit of a property we can use,” Engel said. “When you tool around town and keep your eyes open, you realize we have a homeless population here, we do have a population of people that aren’t quite as well off as other people, and we are our brother’s keeper. I’m not a religious person but I do believe that. We need to help those around us.”
Engel said the ideal spot would be about 1,000 square feet, with space to set up a store twice a week for a few hours, and some storage for the off-season.
Coats for Kids operates at 1271 Gorham St., Unit 8 every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. until March 7, 2020.
Donations of new or gently used winter outerwear can be dropped off at the store during business hours, or at the bins at the following locations: Magna Centre (800 Mulock Dr.); Zona’s II - The Children’s Shoe Shop (16925 Yonge St.); and Avis Budget at the Best Western Hotel (17565 Yonge St.).For more information, visit Coats for Kids on Facebook. For more about the North Newmarket Lions Club, visit here.