Winter Coat Project: The warmest of gestures

A joint initiative between Chaplaincy Services and the International Student Network, the Winter Coat Project has been keeping students warm for over a decade. The Project hands out hundreds of free coats, not to mention countless gloves, hats and scarves, to appreciative McGillians every year. And this year, organizers say, the need is even greater.
Josee Di Sano and Neil Whitehouse of Chaplaincy Services hope McGillians will open their hearts (and their closets) during the annual Winter Coat drive. / Photo: Adam Scotti.

Chaplaincy Services gives away 500+ winter coats to students in need every year

By Neale McDevitt

Like war and childbirth, a Montreal winter cannot be adequately described with mere words. It is a physical test that defies intellectualization. You have to live it to really understand it. And “live it” might be a little optimistic – “survive it” is probably more apropos.

And that’s speaking from the cold-blooded perspective of a frost-hardened native Montrealer. Imagine the shock to your system that first deep freeze would have if you hailed from more temperate or tropical climes like Mexico, Monaco or Mozambique.

“Just the other day I had a student come in who was from the Congo and he asked me ‘Ma’am how cold does it get here in the winter?’” said Josee Di Sano, Coordinator Chaplaincy Services. “And I said ‘I’m not too sure you want to know.’”

The student had gone to see Di Sano to take advantage of the Chaplaincy’s Winter Coat Project, which collects donated winter clothes and distributes them among international students who are ill-prepared to face the full onslaught of Montreal in January.

“A lot of these students have never experienced -40 degree weather – or even seen snow for that matter,” said Di Sano. “After the first snowfall they come to our office in running shoes saying “’I just slid all the way down Peel Street.’”

Five hundred students served each winter

A joint initiative between Chaplaincy Services and the International Student Network, the Winter Coat Project has been keeping students warm for over a decade. Each year, Di Sano says she hands out over 500 free coats to appreciative McGillians, not to mention countless gloves, hats and scarves.

But Di Sano says this year’s closet is all but bare. “We had some coats left over from last year, but they’ve already been taken,” she says. “We really need people to step forward and donate those winter clothes that they no longer need.”

Consider it recycling at its most philanthropic. Not only can people get rid of that old, perfectly serviceable ski jacket hanging in the back of the closet, they can do so knowing it will be put to good use by an appreciative student. “The students can keep the coats that we give them,” says Di Sano, “but a lot of them bring them back when they graduate and say ‘Thank you very much. This is a great coat and I wore it all the time. I just want to make sure someone else gets it.’”

Of course physical warmth isn’t the only gift Chaplaincy Services offers. Di Sano says the Winter Coat Project is often just a literal ice breaker. “Students come in looking for a coat and some boots, but it gives us the chance to offer them coffee, tea, some cookies and the chance to chat a little,” she says. “A lot of these students are thousands of miles away from home and now find themselves in the middle of a fairly high-pressure place. We give them a quiet, welcoming place where they can just catch their breath.”

From religious support to babysitting services

While the core of Chaplaincy Services remains the religious support it offers McGillians of all faiths, it also hosts a variety of interfaith activities and provides numerous services that are distinctly secular – including the Winter Coat Project.

One such popular initiative is the Chaplaincy’s McGill Student Parents Network, which provides babysitting services for McGill students with children so they can study. “From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. one Saturday at month, myself and our volunteers babysit 50 children while their parents are upstairs studying,” says Di Sano. “A lot of them are single parents so this service is invaluable to them.”

But the most pressing matter for Di Sano these days is winter clothes, and she is hoping McGillians will rummage through their closets to help the cause.

People can drop-off their lightly used clothing and other items (such as books and children’s toys) to the Chaplaincy office in Suite 4400 of the West Wing of the Brown Building (3600 McTavish). They should remember, however, that McTavish is closed to traffic after 11 a.m. From 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., people can drop off their donated items at the corner of Peel and Dr. Penfield. “They just have to call me beforehand at 514-398-4104 and I’ll meet them at the corner with my huge trolley,” says Di Sano.

For more information about Chaplaincy Services go here.

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Sami Williams
11 years ago

This is a great project. I bought new Winter Coats for my kids at Burlington Coat Factory. They were $75 less than I had seen them for anywhere else, so we used the difference to buy two new winter coats to donate. This way we’re not the only ones who benefit.