Warm blankets and even warmer relations are the goals of a blanket and coat drive this week at the University of Montana.

By collecting warm clothes, Shane Bell hopes to bring the community closer to Missoula's homeless population.

Bell, a 20-year-old junior at UM, said he and fellow student Erin McConnaha, 18, decided they needed to help the people most likely to be affected by Montana's cold winters: the homeless.

"We want any kind of coat or blanket, as well as anything else that would help somebody when it's cold," Bell said. "They always need coats and blankets and people are always asking for them at (homeless shelters)."

Bell, who has been doing community service with UM's chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for three years, said he wants this project to not just aid the poor with warm clothes, but also let them know people do care about them.

The coats and blankets, which are being collected around the university neighborhood through Friday, will be hand-delivered to Missoula's homeless shelters in an attempt to create a bond between the homeless and the donor.

"It's super relational," he said. "It'll be a way to break some of the stigmatism between the rich and the poor. Organizations can oftentimes be very institutionalized. We don't want that formality or to take away from that human interaction with the people. We want it to be transformational. We want it to be an interaction and an exchange."

One way to strengthen that relationship, said McConnaha, is to add a personal touch to each piece of donated clothing. That touch comes in the form of individual "letters of love" that are attached to the donations.

"They're people and we want to write encouraging letters to them," she said. "We want to get to know them and support them during this really rough time in their lives."

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During the cold winter months, homeless shelters usually have a pressing need for extra coats and blankets, said Ellie Hill, executive director at the Poverello Center. The season tends to see the most people in need of shelter because there isn't currently one Missoula facility that is large enough to house them all, she said.

"A lot of homeless folks in the daytime are exposed to the elements," Hill said. "These folks are out there beating the pavement; their ability to have warm blankets and clothes is very useful. It means a lot that people want to give to those who have to sleep outside."

The "One Person Matters" project has a much greater meaning to it than just donating, McConnaha said. The coat drive's name reflects its goals, she said, because even being able to help a single person will make a difference.

"We believe that every single person matters," McConnaha said. "Even if we only got one coat or one blanket with this, it was still worth it. We know that it starts with helping out one person and that one person matters."

Bell and McConnaha collected coats late last year but weren't nearly as organized as they currently are, Bell said. Through word-of-mouth, though, they have already given Missoula homeless shelters 10 garbage bags of coats and blankets. Now, with as many as a dozen students helping, they hope to increase that output.

Donation boxes, which Bell said are bright green so people can't miss them, are located at numerous spots around the university campus at the University Center, Mansfield Library, Lommasson Center and in the lobbies of each dorm. A coat box can also be found at both Sentinel and Hellgate high schools and the UM College of Technology campus.

The bins will be present at each location until Friday, Bell said.

AJ Mazzolini is a junior studying print journalism at the University of Montana who is interning at the Missoulian. He can be reached at 523-5251 or at aj.mazzolini@missoulian.com.

 

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