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Westside Ministries keeps kids warm with annual coat drive
Coats, toys and haircuts make Christmas special for local students
Westside Ministries' Nadia Johnson helps one of many children try on a jacket during their annual coat drive Thursday. - photo by CANDY PADILLA / The Journal

For many, the month of December signifies warm nights spent by the fireplace, surrounded by loved ones and perhaps a few Christmas stockings as the temperature drops outside. Some families dread the colder months, however, as they cannot afford a coat for their child to protect them from the harsh weather. For the past 28 years, Westside Ministries has made it their mission to provide for these families through their annual Coats 4 Kids coat drive, providing coats, toys and haircuts to local, underserved youth.


What originally began as a coat drive for Turlock students in need has evolved over the years, said Westside Ministries founder JoLynn DiGrazia. The event has now grown to include children from southern Stanislaus County and northern Merced County, with cities and towns from Delhi to Ceres reaping the benefits of the charitable drive. Coats 4 Kids has also seen its number of coats donated increase as time passes, going from around 80 to 100 coats being donated in the event’s first year to the drive now receiving about 1,000 coats annually.


“When a child goes to school with a new coat, they feel better about themselves,” said DiGrazia. “It also means they can get to school safely and warmly, ready to learn. It has a huge impact on them.”


DiGrazia was inspired to create the Coats 4 Kids drive after the tragic death of 11-year-old Becky Valencia – an attendee of Westside Ministries’ Bible Club for kids. Valencia’s lack of a coat during the colder months led to the development of meningitis, from which she never recovered. She would have turned 40 this year.


“She was an incredible child, and we do this in her memory,” said DiGrazia. “Coats are an expensive item for most parents and can be considered a luxury. To be able to give something a little bit extra to a kid is an amazing feeling.”


Thanks to help from multiple organizations throughout the city, Westside Ministries has been able to help 1,000 children through this season’s coat drive, and an additional 200 parents. Carr’s Cleaners served as a drop off location for coats, providing a free cleaning for each coat donated and pushing for donations. The Turlock Downtown Property Owners' Association was a huge contributor to the event’s success as well, said DiGrazia, with downtown businesses like Farm House hosting events and fundraisers to encourage donations. Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Pitman High School, the Hispanic Youth Leadership Council and Coldwell Banker helped collect coats for the drive as well.

“It’s a huge boost to the underserved community in Turlock to help out their children,” said DiGrazia. “A father came in last night with his children, and he was overjoyed that his child would finally have something new.”

Along with their new coat, each child also received a toy, a warm meal and a haircut. Thanks to the combined efforts of the Turlock Post Office, the K Mart in Ceres, several low rider clubs throughout the county and other organizations, Coats 4 Kids was able to provide over 1,000 toys to the children. Allure Salon and Suddenly Perfect donated their time and expertise to providing each child with a fresh cut.


Ten bikes were also donated to the organization’s efforts, which DiGrazia said Westside Ministries plans to give to young Syrian refugees in town.


“A bike can make a huge difference in a refugee’s life,” said DiGrazia. “A lot of our staff are immigrants, so we feel a real affinity to those kids.”


While the organization helps the underserved youth of Turlock year round, this event is especially important to the organization.


“We feed 200 kids a night, but this event goes above and beyond and gives them an extra ‘We love you,’” said DiGrazia. “It’s an incredible feat, and we love doing it.”