Longfellow Elementary School kids warm up Iowa City


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When Longfellow Elementary teacher Paula Rocca went to greet students outside Monday morning, she noticed the kids were shivering from the unusually frigid air, a stark contrast from the warm weather a few days before.

“They were all bouncing up and down in line, they were shivering and trying to stay warm,” she said. “I said to them, ‘Are you guys cold?’ and they all kind of chuckled and said, ‘Yeah.’ ”

Rocca took the chance to remind the students that there were many kids in Iowa City without coats standing outside in line. The students went silent.

Students at Longfellow Elementary, 1130 Seymour Ave., took matters into their own hands when they held their second coat drive in conjunction with “Coats of Kindness,” an organization that was started three years ago. This year the drive was completely student-run.

“This year, they took it on themselves,” Rocca said. “I am simply an adviser. They have done literally all the work to do this.”

The Coats of Kindness organization collects coats and winter items for people of all ages. Both state and national statistics indicate the need for such apparel.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in 2011, the nation’s homeless population was 636,017 people. In Iowa alone, 18,210 people were homeless in 2010, according to the Iowa Institute for Community Alliance.

According to the One Warm Coat organization’s website, health officials report that a 2-degree drop in body temperature results in children having difficulty to learn and adults unable to work effectively.

“From an educator standpoint, I know these kids [without coats] aren’t prepared,” Rocca said.

The students incorporated new methods for collecting in the drive, including selling hot chocolate.

“What we did was every Tuesday morning, we had a hot-cocoa stand. We had regular and sugar free and it was a quarter a cup,” said Lucy Janssen, a fourth-grader in Rocca’s class. “We sold 1,500 cups. We bought 50 new coats with the money.”

The students participating in the coat drive think, so far, the drive has been successful.

“I think it’s going pretty well, and I think that we’ve made a lot of improvements from what we did last year,” said Ella Cook, a fourth-grader in Rocca’s class. “We’ve already gotten way more than we did last year — we’re at 977 right now, and last year we had 542.”

The students originally set a goal of 750 winter weather gear items. After that goal was exceeded, they made a second goal of 1,000 items.

Karen Wenzel, the cofounder of Coats of Kindness, acknowledged that Longfellow set a good example of how to get involved with giving.

“Every year, I’m amazed at how many more people need help and these coats,” she said. “Then I’m blown away by the generosity of everybody. And then getting the kids involved, and running the drive themselves, and getting involved with giving … I think it’s really important for kids to learn that.”

Rocca said students understand the changes they are making.

“They know there’s a good chance that they are going to walk down the street, and they may see somebody wearing their old coat,” she said. “They are going to know that they changed that kid’s life and made it a better place for them.”

The Longfellow students have an incentive to bring in items for the drive. Whichever class brings in the most items will win a party.

Rocca recognizes the importance of students taking part in a project like this.

“Any child, whatever cause they feel strongly about, someday they’ll think back on this coat drive, and they will go out in the world, they’ll give 100 percent to whatever cause it is, and make the world a better place,” she said.

DI photographer Jessica Payne contributed to this story.

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