- Associated Press - Sunday, October 30, 2016

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) - In one of Virginia’s wealthiest counties, families live in motels and children huddle at bus stops without coats on icy mornings.

This is what the men and women of Stafford County Fire and Rescue see regularly on their runs, said assistant chief Mark Doyle. This is what inspired the department seven years ago to get new coats onto the backs of kids who otherwise would go without.

Operation Warm outfitted 33 children in the county’s Head Start program that year. This week, they’ll donate close to 700 to children in 28 Stafford schools.

“Our community is a lot better off than others,” Doyle said. But the number of coats the program provides “shows you the other side.”

He stood in the cavernous engine bay of Fire Company 12, where on a recent Tuesday morning trucks had been moved out to make way for tables piled with coats in a rainbow of colors and a range of sizes.

The number of economically disadvantaged students living in Stafford has grown since the program’s beginnings, from about 6,200 in the 2010-2011 school year to more than 8,600 in 2015-2016, according to the Virginia Department of Education. That represents nearly a third of children enrolled in the county’s public schools.

Tiffany Twine, a community engagement manager who works with guidance counselors to get the coats to kids who need them, said she has watched more and more students qualify for free and reduce lunches - an indication of the hard times facing many Stafford families.

Twine called taking care of the expense of a winter coat that a child may outgrow after just one season “a comfort and a relief” to many parents. “We know we’re providing an education. We’re providing something more.”

Operation Warm began in Pennsylvania nearly two decades ago with 58 coats distributed by a Rotary Club there, according to the group’s website. Stafford Fire and Rescue is among 90 community partners around the country that now hand out coats on behalf of the organization.

In the program’s early days, coats were bought in stores. Now, most of the lined and hooded coats come directly from an American manufacturer at a cost of about $34, which is largely paid for with donations and grants, Doyle said. A bulk of those handed out this year also came from area Walmart stores. The company is one of program’s supporters.

Stafford Fire and Rescue Lt. Matt Warren spent the day before the event picking up more coats and hundreds of deeply-discounted gloves and hats from several of the retailer’s locations, Doyle said. On Tuesday morning, they were organized by size and gender onto rows of tables. Volunteers armed with lists spent less than half an hour putting coats into 28 corresponding boxes bound for schools by day’s end.

It would be the second time in a year Stafford firefighters responded to children in need; in August, they helped provide nearly 700 backpacks to schools, Head Start and community groups.

“The community is important to us,” Doyle said. “Whether it’s a non-emergency or an emergency situation, we want to help.”

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Information from: The Free Lance-Star, https://www.fredericksburg.com/

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