By Erika Webb
The first days of 2014 were rainy and raw. No doubt many held off on dismantling tinsel and lights in an effort to ward off the gloom -- a luxury not readily accessible to all.
Countywide, efforts already were underway to extend warmth to those without.
Lake Helen's Unity in the Community group was busy collecting coats, jackets, sweaters, hoodies, sweatshirts and other cold-weather items, such as blankets, socks, hats and gloves.
The items were distributed Jan. 11 at the Shuffleboard Building, 493 S. Lakeview Drive, days after frigid-for-Florida temperatures served as a reminder the importance of one of the three basic needs for survival.
Anyone in need was invited.
The coat drive was jointly sponsored by several community churches and yielded more than 200 coats in addition to other warmth inducing items.
"This is the first, and one of many projects that we're going to be doing," Lake Helen Event Coordinator Johnnie Chavis said. "We wanted to do some things, some outreach in the community, and thought this was a good project."
The Unity in the Community Program is comprised of Lake Helen churches, including Blake Memorial Baptist Church, Church of God in Christ, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Lake Helen United Methodist Church, Last Chance Outreach Ministries, Olive AME Church, Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church and Harmony Retreat.
"Our religious affiliation, skin color, financial status, political beliefs and other ways we may be different from each other should not be areas that divide us as people," the organization stated in a news release about the event. "Beginning at a local level with programs of unity, the Unity in the Community group feel that town by town, city by city it can grow to where people can break down any walls that often divide them from others."
In September, a similar drive to benefit Halifax Urban Ministries in Daytona Beach was sponsored by the WashUp! Laundromat in South Daytona.
Owner Mischelle Romesberg opened the Laundromat in April.
"I didn't realize how many people would leave their clothes and not come back," Ms. Romesberg said. "We have a lost and found but we give all (abandoned) clothing, blankets and sheets to HUM."
Left behind laundry is kept for a state-mandated period of time before being donated, she added.
Ms. Romesberg also collects towels to donate to the ARNI Foundation and Halifax Humane Society.
By Nov. 1, the date targeted to turn collected items over to HUM, there were more than 40 coats in addition to hats, scarves, sweatshirts and blankets. Every item was washed and dried at the Laundromat before being donated.
WashUp's loyalty card customers earn bonus points, which add up to cash, and Ms. Romesberg encouraged donations by offering "WashUp! cash" for items.
Though she'd promised Mark Geallis, HUM's director of development, to have a cache by Nov. 1 when cooler temperatures begin to loom, Ms. Romesberg said she will gladly accept donations any time.
"If people still want to bring them in, we'll wash and dry them and give them to HUM," she said.
This year she advertised through flyers given to 40 local churches as well as on Facebook and the Volusia County Moms website.
"Next year I'm going to be much more prepared," Ms. Romesberg said. "There's a lot of people in the Daytona area that need help. If this is a small way we can help, then that's what we want to do."
"HUM doesn't charge for them," Ms. Romesberg added. "Their organization helps a lot of people."
Mr. Geallis said the organization has been fortunate to have charitable community partners, such as Wash Up! since HUM doesn't have its own official coat drive.
This time of year the agency is busy doing all it can to keep people out of the cold.
"We're doing a cold weather shelter tonight," Mr. Geallis said in a phone interview Jan. 2.
Temperatures were expected to drop to around 47 degrees, but Mr. Geallis said a check of the National Weather Service website revealed thermometers would read around 10 degrees lower.
"It kind of caught us by surprise," Mr. Geallis said. "It's going to drop into the 30s tonight and 40 is our threshold."
When it gets that cold, he said, three buses transport homeless individuals to five area churches, which offer shelter and food. Two smaller church buses and one Votran bus -- which leaves the terminal for the night at 6:30 -- arrive at 215 Bay St. to ferry the homeless to the churches.
"They won't need coats tonight," Mr. Geallis said. "The churches provide a bedroll, hot meal and breakfast. They have their own corps of volunteers who are probably cooking and rolling out the bedrolls right now."
Those in need are required to register at HUM by afternoon to be eligible for shelter that night.
"We check to make sure there are no bad attitudes or that they're not intoxicated since these are churches," Mr. Geallis said.
HUM's church partners include Port Orange Christian, First United Methodist of Port Orange and Bunnell and the Victorious Life Church in Port Orange.
Mr. Geallis said the shelters also were open Jan. 6 and 7, the coldest days of the season thus far.
On those nights, for many, coats had to suffice.
"We only have space for 72 people since a couple of the other partner churches were not able to organize volunteer teams to feed and supervise our homeless guests," he said.