What eventually became the Karen Kitzmiller Memorial Coat Drive got started in 1989, when Warren Kitzmiller’s first wife, Karen, was running successfully for one of two seats representing Montpelier in the Vermont House. From 1989 until Karen’s untimely death in 2001, Karen and Warren worked together to continue the coat drive. After Karen’s passing, the coat drive was renamed in her honor.
Through the years, the coat drive ran on a simple dynamic: On the one hand the coat drive was a recycling project. As successive coat drives made clear, there were hundreds of perfectly good winter coats hanging in closets across Central Vermont. On the other hand there was the community’s history of civic generosity.
So the coats were there, and many people were willing to part with a coat they were no longer using to benefit someone in need. Once collected, the coats could be brought to a public location and put on display. Then people could try on the coats and take one home. The drive included hats, boots, mittens, scarves, even blankets. Everything on display was free of charge.
After Karen’s passing, Warren Kitzmiller continued to lead the coat drive with volunteer help. In 2008, the Community National Bank, with branch offices in Montpelier and Barre, joined the drive as a major partner. In its partnership role, the bank advertised the coat collection campaign and the October distribution event and also provided two drop-off points for donations. Bank employees provided staff support for the distribution in Barre.
After 30 years of leading the coat drive Warren Kitzmiller was ready to pass the torch, and in the summer of 2019 he made a presentation to the Montpelier Rotary Club to see if the club might be interested in taking overall responsibility for the drive. In July there were discussions with the club, and in August the club voted unanimously to embrace the project. As part of the handover, Kitzmiller agreed to stay involved to provide a transition up to and through the annual distribution event on Saturday, October 26, 2019.
In an October 31 (2019) letter to the Times-Argus newspaper, Kitzmiller described the just-completed distribution event as “a huge success” and “one for the record books.” At the end of his letter he reported that more winter coats, accessories, and blankets had been given away than ever before.
As Rotary members began planning for the fall 2020 Karen Kitzmiller Memorial Coat Drive they were on their own. They knew they needed to nail down two things: a late October date for the distribution event; and, of greater importance, a large public space where the drive could be managed safely. The date was easy — Saturday, October 24. But finding and booking a large, public space proved to be difficult.
During 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic was very much an unknown factor. In early March the virus made its first appearance in Vermont. And as summer came on, the spread of the virus here seemed under control. To take just one example, for more than three months, from July 28 until November 7, the statewide death toll from COVID-19 remained unchanged at 58 deaths. But the ground was changing under our feet. As summer yielded to fall, there was growing expert and media speculation about the coming of cooler weather and the possibility of a second virus surge. And soon enough that second surge began to show itself.
It was not for lack of trying that Rotary Club organizers had difficulty in securing a safe public space. In late August and September the club organizers made phone contact with a number of people who represented the obvious Montpelier locations with large public spaces. Calls went out to a number of churches, the Capitol Plaza Hotel, City Hall, the Montpelier Public School System, the Vermont College of Fine Arts — even the State of Vermont. For varying reasons most of these spaces were unavailable or they just could not accommodate all the needs of a large crowd with social distancing restrictions at the October 24 distribution event.
On August 26, Warren Kitzmiller sent the club an e-mail message that began with these sobering words.
“I’ve been spending a fair amount of time thinking about COVID-19 and the coat drive. Knowing that it is not my decision, I am deeply concerned.” Public safety was Kitzmiller’s chief concern. He described a typical crowd scene from a recent coat drive event, saying: “Our shoppers crowded the hallway like Filene’s basement.” He went on to suggest that perhaps the coat drive should take a “one-year pause.” And he added that he would hate to think of the coat drive in Montpelier “being the source of a super-spreader event.”
By mid-September it was becoming increasingly clear for a number of compelling reasons that it would not be possible for the Rotary Club to find a public space that was safe enough to hold the October 24 distribution event. And the club’s partners at the Community National Bank were reaching the same conclusion. As the bank’s marketing director Tracy Roberts said, “We are probably not able to do this in a safe way this year.”
It had become increasingly clear that the Rotary Club would have to give up this year’s traditional coat drive. But at a September 14 Rotary Club meeting, club secretary and treasurer Bill Miles put forward the gist of a new idea. He suggested we take a focused approach this year. As part of that focused approach the club decided it would seek the help of a small number of community organizations that worked directly with people and families in need. It was hoped that these organizations, working with the club, would determine the number of coats needed. The club would raise the money to purchase new coats and seek the help of four cooperating organizations to distribute the coats directly to children and adults who needed them.
The club’s new and focused approach quickly gained support, and in due course Tracy Roberts at the Community National Bank announced that the bank — in a “Kickstarter” spirit — would make a $5,000 contribution to the newly imagined coat campaign with the aim of encouraging others to contribute.
Just as the club was moving from the coat drive to a coat campaign, Rotary member Jen Galfetti, who is the chief financial officer and treasurer of Union Mutual Insurance Company in Montpelier, stepped forward. In offering to help, Galfetti was drawing inspiration from her recent work with Michael Nobles, the late president and CEO of Union Mutual who died suddenly on June 25. It had been just last April and May, in the immediate aftermath of the first appearance of COVID-19 in Vermont, when Nobles led a fundraising campaign that came to the rescue of hard-hit downtown Montpelier businesses.
“How quickly we were able to make everything come together,” was what Galfetti said surprised her the most about that April and May effort. Remembering the sort of confidence that Michael Nobles had exhibited last spring in working with local businesses to raise $200,000 for the MEND (Montpelier Economic Need and Distress) program gave Galfetti confidence that the community would come together yet again to support those in need. “He was always finding ways to give to the community,” she said of Nobles.
In quick order, Galfetti made contact with four key not-for-profit local organizations that work with families, children, and adults: the Family Center of Washington County, Circle (a women’s domestic violence organization), the Good Samaritan Haven, and the Salvation Army. As a result of these contacts Rotary organizers were able to determine the specific number of coats that were needed, including sizes and genders.
Galfetti’s outreach intensified her awareness of community needs. “There are over 250 homeless families in Central Vermont,” she said. “And there are a lot of people who are less fortunate during the holiday season and all year long.”
Community support for the coat campaign was almost immediate. In less than a month, thanks to the initial contribution from the Community National Bank and with multiple individual and business contributions, over $19,000 was raised — enough to provide over 400 winter coats for children and adults.
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