RIPLEY • “We started back in ’87. We started really, really, small and it overwhelmed us almost immediately. We had no idea there was that much need.” That’s how Dr. Gene Howell describes the start of the Coats for Kids program in Ripley.

At first it was just for Tippah County, but eventually they realized Benton County didn’t have a program like theirs. And the need was just as great there – Howell said about 25 percent of the kids in Tippah County are considered below poverty level; in Benton County, it’s about 50 percent. So now they serve both counties, although Howell also emphasized that they will serve anyone who comes, regardless of what county they’re from.

He said that in the 32 years they’ve been serving the community, they have handed out a total of about 30,000 coats. But despite the name, it’s not strictly coats. They also provide shoes and gloves with the coats, and if someone really needs more clothing than just winter wear, they will take them to Walmart and get them what they need.

Even though they had some funding difficulties when they first started, Howell said that’s not the case anymore. He said there are plenty of people in the area who donate on a regular basis. “This is a wonderful place to live. They care about the kids, and make sure we never run out of money.” And because Coats for Kids is a volunteer organization there is “zero overhead, which means every penny goes straight into buying a kid a coat or buying clothes.”

He said it can be an emotional experience to help out sometimes: “A lot of these kids will try a coat on and when they get ready to leave, they take it off and hand it back to you. They cannot believe it’s theirs. It will get next to your heart very, very quickly ... We have an old saying, ‘Give a kid a coat and it’ll warm you.’”

It wouldn’t be possible to do this without help from volunteers, though. Howell praised the volunteers who give their time to help others. He also had a special thanks for his wife, an accountant who helped set up the inventory system that streamlines the whole process. “She organizes my life, and she organizes Coats for Kids,” he laughed.

Coats for Kids is located at the Old Presbyterian Church in Ripley. Hours are from 2- 4 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday throughout November (except for Thanksgiving), but Howell said, “Nobody goes home until the last kid is taken care of.” They’re also on call every day if someone is in need.

For those who want to get involved, he said just call his office at (662)-837-8418 and talk to Anna, who is also a major help with the project. She has the sign-up sheet, so let her know who you are and when you want to help out.

Howell concluded with a story illustrating how contagious the giving spirit is: “We had one kid one time, she was about five years old. She had her coat in a bag like this, on a hanger. And she said, ‘Last year, Momma didn’t have a job. We didn’t have any money and Coats for Kids gave me a coat. Well, this year, Momma’s got a good job. We can buy my own coat. So we took this one to the cleaners and brought it back. Please put it on another child this year.’”

He said it benefits everyone involved, the volunteers as well as the people receiving the coats: “It helps everybody involved. And that’s what we’re supposed to be doing: helping our fellow man.”

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