Catholic Vancouver Oct. 15, 2015

Homeless to receive handmade coats

By Agnieszka Ruck

Volunteers sew "comfort coats." (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

SURREY—Dozens more homeless people will stay warm and dry this winter thanks to a dedicated group of sewers at Star of the Sea Parish.

The Helpers of St. Anne and St. Joachim are in their 16th season of making thick, waterproof coats that convert into sleeping bags for people on the streets.

"We pray for the receivers of these coats every day," said organizer Carolyn Wharton on this year's first day of sewing, Sept. 29.

About 30 volunteers will work to the whirring sound of sewing machines in Star of the Sea School gymnasium every Monday until the end of November. They intend to make 25 coats.

The handmade Santa Anna Comfort Coats are thick and made with fleece, insulated, with waterproof layers. Wharton designed them without buttons, zippers, or other breakable parts; the coats have loops, ties, and knots.

"It's a passion of mine. I just love helping people and reaching out to people," said volunteer Brenda D'Souza. She has joined the group just this year.

D'Souza used to help out at Luke 15 House, a transition home for former prisoners with addictions. When she moved to Star of the Sea Parish two years ago, she started looking for other ways to help out in the community.

"More than anything, I'm really grateful for what I have in my life and what God has given me. It's the smallest way I can pay back."

She is also involved in the King's Banquet Soup Kitchen, an initiative by the Helpers of St. Anne and St. Joachim that's been running for 11 years.

Member Geraldine Meagher said she joined the group four years ago because she loves to sew and enjoys the company.

"When you see the results and you think about people actually being able to use this, it's really a great project. It's unique," she said. "It's where I can use my talents."

Before giving the coats away, the ladies stuff the pockets with handmade toques, scarves, and mittens, as well as toiletries and a St. Anne prayer card.

"We put prayer cards in the pockets so people understand these are gifts from Almighty God, and He doesn't forget about His children," Wharton explained.

"It is thanks to His inspiration that we're doing this project."

Since its inception, the group has handcrafted 460 Santa Anna Comfort Coats. Wharton also had 100 manufactured to hand out during the Olympics in 2010.

Finished coats are typically delivered to organizations that serve the homeless, such as Covenant House, the Missionaries of Charity, or St. Mary's Street Ministry.

"There's no shortage of ministries that need them." Wharton has had requests from Victoria, Calgary, and Edmonton.

She said homeless recipients are "weeping" and "tongue-tied" when they are given these coats for free. It's a time-consuming effort that yields only 25 coats a year, and the volunteers aren't getting any younger, Wharton said.

In an effort to find ways to produce more coats to fill the need, she hopes to get a manufacturer to make a batch that she could sell as gifts or emergency preparedness items to average Canadians.

The funds would then go toward another batch for the homeless, for free. Though manufacturing is more expensive, it would get more coats out, faster.

"I have found no other way thus far to ensure that these specially-designed garments will continue to be gifted to homeless people," Wharton said.

She urges those interested in purchasing a coat, sponsoring a coat for a homeless person, or getting involved another way to email [email protected]