Volunteers show toques, mittens and scarves that have been hand-knitted during a previous year’s Comfort Coats effort. (File photo)

Volunteers show toques, mittens and scarves that have been hand-knitted during a previous year’s Comfort Coats effort. (File photo)

South Surrey ‘Comfort Coat’ project a success, despite pandemic hurdles

Helpers of St. Anne volunteers ensure tradition continues to warm homeless

The COVID-19 pandemic created significant challenges for Semiahmoo Peninsula volunteers who’ve gathered every fall for nearly two decades to craft warmth for the homeless.

In years past, the dozens-strong Helpers of St. Anne team would meet regularly en masse, starting in September, in the gym of Star of the Sea Catholic school in South Surrey to cut, sew and stuff full-length, fleece-lined, quilted and hooded waterproof coats that ultimately protect those most in need from the biting elements of the winter season.

READ MORE: ‘So much need’ for South Surrey-based coat project to continue, grow

But the pandemic, as it has with so many things, threw the tradition a serious curveball.

“We had so many challenges to our project this year,” group founder Carolyn Wharton said this month. “I’ve never faced so many challenges.”

After stepping up in March – following declaration of the pandemic – to fashion and deliver more than 2,500 masks to sites including care homes, members of the Catholic outreach ministry turned their focus to the Comfort Coats initiative.

Faced with no way to fundraise, facility closures, gathering limits and sanitizing requirements, “we thought, ‘what in heaven’s name are we going to do about the coat project?’” Wharton said.

There were doubts as to whether enough of the material could be obtained months ahead of schedule to enable an early start that could help balance out the restrictions. As well, if it did arrive early, “where on Earth were we going to cut all this fabric?” Wharton said.

Determined, the volunteers powered through – fabric was secured, a group member had space to enable some distanced cutting and as much as was possible was done from home. Eventually, tables for sewing were set up in the Star of the Sea Hall, but still, only half the usual number of sewers could be there, Wharton said.

Despite the obstacles, some two dozen Comfort Coats – which double as sleeping bags – their pockets stuffed with toiletries, knitted items and gifts, will be ready for pickup in early December. This year, they will be distributed through Collingwood Neighbourhood House, Missionary Sisters of Charity and the Catholic Street Missionaries.

“We were absolutely determined to find a way around everything that COVID threw to us as an obstacle,” Wharton said, commending, in particular, project co-ordinators Margaret Gregson, Ana Castillion and Arnalda Benetti.

“The community needs to know how hard we worked this year,” she added. “The people that have come together to pull this off, they’re just so dedicated. The work was unreal and the organization had to be just right.

“It’s over with now, but boy, I tell you, I didn’t think it would be possible.”



tholmes@peacearchnews.com
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Volunteers work on Comfort Coats during a previous year’s effort. (File photo)

Volunteers work on Comfort Coats during a previous year’s effort. (File photo)