I am a long-time, proud member of the Rock Island Kiwanis Club and my favorite service project of the year is one held every November that we fondly call “Coats for Kids”. For the past 12 years, I have spearheaded this special day in which our club reaches out to one of our community’s most vulnerable populations: children living in poverty. Many generous hands come together to make the day possible: Johannes Bus Service provides a bus to transport 50 students back and forth to the QC Botanical Center, the Botanical Center generously donates the meeting space and Bridges Catering provides a “kid-friendly” luncheon spread which includes hotdogs and plenty of “Oreo Marshmallow Fluff” (some students go back for seconds and thirds of the gooey confection!) Finally, many of my fellow Kiwanians show up to help the children “shop” for new coats, gloves and hats and serve food.
With a few faithful volunteers, I show up early at the Botanical Center to set up and then depart for the first of the three schools we serve to ride the bus with the kids and supervise. This year, we partnered with Francis Williard Elementary, The Rock Island Academy and Longfellow Elementary. Longfellow was our last stop. I exited the bus to gather the Longfellow students from the office and direct them to the bus. One teeny-tiny little girl stood out from the rest: she had huge dark eyes, a thin coat inappropriate for the weather outside and big pink boots. She was a straggler at the end of the line of children and had a terrified look in those beautiful eyes. When we got to the bus, she stopped and shook her head and burst into tears. A Kindergartener for whom English was not her first language, she didn’t understand what was happening, where the bus would take her or what she was supposed to do. I picked her up, put her on the bus and guided her to a seat where we sat with my arm around her as I comforted her and told her stories of a beautiful new coat and plenty of good things to eat. Her sobs ebbed away by the time we arrived at our destination.
After corralling all the children inside, I matched my little friend with a volunteer “personal shopper”. The next time I saw her, she had a new bright pink coat, fuzzy unicorn mittens and a unicorn hat with a sparkly rainbow unicorn horn and white fur. As soon as she returned to her seat in the dining room, the fancy hat went on her head and was there to stay while she consumed her lunch. The earlier tears were replaced with a heart-warming smile that lit up her whole face. I bent down and complimented her on her choices. “Miss Heidi, I so pretty!” There were never truer words ever spoken.