Heather Jablonski and daughter Jayden sifted through piles of coats until they spotted one that fit the growing 6-year-old and her personality: a sleek black jacket with a leopard-print liner.
Ordinarily, the coat might have set Jablonski back $30 or $40, but on Jan. 16 she took it home for no cost, courtesy of the Spartan Winter Warm Up organized by the student service club at Saeger Middle School in the Francis Howell district. The annual community coat drive culminates in a giveaway night when families can pick out winter coats free of charge.
"It helps out tremendously," Jablanski said. After losing her job in September, she has to make every penny count. That makes buying winter coats, which she said cost at least $30, a challenge. Multiply that by her five children and that's a big bill to drop on a tight budget.
"If you're a family with multiple children that are quickly growing, having to provide coats for your children but also yourself can be a difficult situation for families to be in," said April Klutenkamper, marketing director for Youth in Need, a St. Charles-based agency that provides support for homeless adolescents.
Saeger paraprofessional Yolanda Curry helped the service club launch the coat drive and distribution about three years ago. The group collected about 100 coats the first year. Curry said the group was surprised by the community's generosity, but more eye-opening was the reality of the need.
"We were kind of overwhelmed by the response. We felt that this was perhaps a need in our community, but we had people coming in from all over," Curry said.
That doesn't surprise Pam Struckhoff, director of program services for Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service. She has seen St. Charles County's homeless population increase in the past five years, particularly families with school-age children.
"You wouldn't think a coat would be an extra, but it is an extra if you don't have a roof over head," Struckhoff said.
Last year, 1,023 people in St. Charles, Warren and Lincoln counties were identified as homeless, and 75 percent of those were families, according to the Community Council of St. Charles County. Nearly half were children under 18.
Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service can help families with severe financial limitations shop for free at thrift stores, but Struckhoff said more and more families turn up empty-handed after shopping. With everyone looking to save a few bucks, bargain hunting has cut down on the stock of coats, hats, gloves and other winter wear once abundant at resale stores.
"Everyone loves a bargain. I do too, but when people shop in those stores to save $20 on a coat, the kids who really need one go without," Struckhoff said.