Operation Warm -- and volunteers from Highmark -- helped students pick a brand-new coat

Each student at East Dover Elementary got a free, brand-new winter coat from the nonprofit Operation Warm Nov. 26.

Eyes got big and smiles widened as they searched through piles of multicolored coats and picked out their favorite.

“It makes me feel nice and cozy,” fourth-grade student Jasmine said.

As soon as a class streamed through the gymnasium doors, each student was paired with a volunteer from Highmark Health Options who helped them.

Operation Warm manufactures and distributes free, durable, kid-friendly coats to students in need. This was the second time Highmark has partnered with them.

The nonprofit identifies particular students using the federal Free and Reduced Meal program. They decided to give coats to all 460 East Dover students.

“We give warmth, confidence and hope to kids with a brand-new coat,” said Lee Fulton, vice president of strategy and operations. Part of that boost is built into the shopping experience, she said. Each student can pick out their favorite color and style and decide how they want it to fit.

“I really like the color of it because purple is my favorite color,” fourth-grade student Advena said.

About 45 volunteers came to help. Many crouched down with a student, with hugs and sweet conversations around the room.

Adult attention is a big part Operation Warm, Fulton said.

“They react in such a magical way to an adult giving them that one-on-one attention,” she said.

Those conversations and shared smiles carry a special meaning for the volunteers, too, said Todd Graham, Highmark CEO and president.

“The engagement with the kids is just unbelievable,” he said. “Some will say they’ve never had a coat like this before … We’ve had kids last year that didn’t want to take the coat off all day.”

Volunteers Paula Victoria and Mike Stewart agreed.

“I’ve got kids and grandkids myself, and no kid should be without a warm coat,” Victoria said.

“It’s been a great experience to see their smiles, their faces light up,” Stewart said.

Highmark and Operation Warm will give out 1,000 coats in Delaware this year. Their combined outreach did not go unnoticed among East Dover’s students, either.

“The people who were helping us look for our coat [were] amazing and I want to tell them thank you,” Advena said.