SEQUIM — What started out as a charitable program initially intended to help less than a dozen youths has now, in its 22nd year, put warm clothes on the backs of 5,000 youths.
Coats For Kids, established by Denny Kuhnhausen and others at the Sequim Elks Lodge, celebrated a milestone last month when it distributed the group’s 5,000th coat certificate.
Coats and shoes are often some of the more expensive parts of a child’s wardrobe, Kuhnhausen said.
Early on, program organizers decided to hone in on needs of youths in preschool and elementary school grades because that group has a greater need for help and the least opportunity to earn their own money.
“However we have, in special circumstances, provided help to older children, even high school kids,” Kuhnhausen said.
“Another guideline we wanted to follow was that we would give new coats and shoes only,” he said. “We found that in many cases with the children whom we have helped, it was a wonderful experience for them to get something new.”
“For some it was the first time they had ever had an opportunity to go to a store and actually help select their own new coat or pair of shoes.”
Special care is taken with recipients’ names to protect their self-esteem and reduce the chances of embarrassment, he said.
Program representatives point out that there are no administrative costs charged to Coats For Kids, and that all donations stay on the North Olympic Peninsula.
Coat certificates now go out to every elementary school in Clallam County, Sequim Middle School and all of the head start schools in Sequim and Port Angeles.
The program began in the fall of 1996 when a group of Elks noted a news report that a number of major charity programs provide just a small percentage of total funds raised to the people the funds were intended to help, and that many of those charities in Washington state had operations outside the state or national borders.
A couple of evenings after that discussion, the group decided to raise $400, with the purpose of giving 10 local, needy youths a $40 certificate each for either a new coat or pair of shoes/boots. Any money left over from that $40 would go back to the fund to help other children in need, Kuhnhausen said.
“Our initial thinking was that we wanted a program that would grow slowly and become an important program for our Elks Lodge and an asset to the community,” he said.
While some programs had tried to help area youths in a similar manner, Kuhnhausen said he was told they had come and gone.
“One of the reasons for not being discouraged was that after we actually got underway and started telling other Elks members about the program, support began to grow,” he said.
“The result was that instead of helping 10 children as originally planned, we actually helped 25 the first year.”
To maintain a successful local charity, Kuhnhausen said, the program must do a few things: certificates must to be distributed in an organized manner; communication between the charity (Elks) and the recipients (via schools, care-giving organizations, churches) must be established; program volunteers must spend time with school counselors/administrators to help them get started without adding to their workload; the program must build slowly, with the next year in mind, and contributors and supporters must see the program works and deserves continued contributions.
“I feel that as we’ve gone through time, the contributors now own the program and my role is to help them carry the program forward,” Kuhnhausen said.
“When I have contact with school counselors and/or administrators, I try to make the point that we don’t consider this program a typical charity, but rather neighbor helping neighbor,” Kuhnhausen said.
“We like to think that some of these financial problems are temporary and when things improve, the families can return the help and this has already happened,” he said.
Karen Lewis and Heidi Albrecht point out that Coats For Kids is a program that organizations such as the American Red Cross contact in the event of a family losing personal property to disaster such as a fire.
In addition, Coats For Kids distributes certificates to private pre-schools, foster care programs and other charity groups. Initially started to assist local youths during the cold winter months, the program now operates year-round.
“It’s more like ‘Community members helping community members’ than ‘Coats For Kids,’” Lewis said.
Kuhnhausen said the program has a base of about 80 people who provide support each year, with volunteers helping raise funds through tacos nights, pizza parties, “Barstool Bingo,” various raffles and silent auctions.
“Elks Care and Elks Share” is one of the cornerstone beliefs of the organization, Kuhnhausen said.
“That’s … why they’ve sponsored this program since it began,” he said. “The list of members and friends that have contributed directly to this program is long and continues to grow.”
For more about the program or to help, contact Kuhnhausen at 360-681-8761 or [email protected] yahoo.com, or call the Elks Lodge at 360-683-2763.