Girl Scouts give back to keep neighbors warm this winter

Photo Courtesy of Clare Silvestri Members of Girl Scout Troop 20723, from left, Star Lawson, Brianna Spagnuolo and Hannah Villasin, all West Orange High School students, bag up coats to donate to Jersey Cares.
Photo Courtesy of Clare Silvestri
Members of Girl Scout Troop 20723, from left, Star Lawson, Brianna Spagnuolo and Hannah Villasin, all West Orange High School students, bag up coats to donate to Jersey Cares.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Two West Orange Girl Scout troops collected a total of 180 coats, as of press time Dec. 8, for the 20th annual Jersey Cares Coat Drive, a program that will now distribute them to approximately 200 nonprofits throughout New Jersey.

Coat-drive coordinator Clare Silvestri said troop 20016 from Mt. Pleasant Elementary School and her own troop, 20723 from St. Joseph’s Church, worked from Nov. 1 through Dec. 9 asking residents to drop off new and gently used coats at collection bins they had set up at participating schools and churches. After gathering all donated coats, Silvestri said the Scouts then sorted them into men’s, women’s and children’s piles before bagging them in groups of five. The Scout leaders then transported the bags to either of Jersey Cares’ two collection sites, in West Caldwell or Livingston, she said.

According to Silvestri, this year marked the eighth time West Orange troops had participated in the coat drive, for which they have collected more than 2,000 coats since 2006. Jersey Cares, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting volunteerism throughout the state, has gathered more than 500,000 coats overall during its two decades of running the initiative.

But no matter how many coats are donated, Silvestri said it is vital that the Scouts continue to take part. She explained that the coat drive is a great way to bring the troops together while engaging the entire community. Above all, she said it teaches them the importance of helping others — a mission that is especially poignant at this time of year.

“The coat drive comes at one of the busiest times of the year for me, yet I think it’s so important for all of us — especially the girls in my troop — to reflect on the ‘giving’ aspect of the season,” Silvestri told the West Orange Chronicle in a Dec. 7 email. “I was once at the West Caldwell collection site when people from an urban church group were picking up coats to distribute to their community, and they expressed such appreciation for what we do. A lot of people cannot afford a good winter coat — and for the homeless, these coats can make a huge difference in their lives.”

The coat drive itself is making a huge difference in the lives of the Scouts participating. Troop 20723 member Hannah Villasin said taking part in the initiative for the past eight years has opened her eyes to the meaningfulness of serving the less fortunate. In effect, the West Orange High School freshman said it has inspired her always to help her community in any way she can while encouraging others to do so as well, explaining that the feeling she gets knowing she is giving a coat to a cold child who cannot afford one is “unexplainable.”

“When I collect, sort and give the coats to the less fortunate, I feel like I am making a difference in my community,” Villasin told the Chronicle in a Dec. 7 email. “It gives me a reminder of how I should appreciate all that I have because others aren’t as fortunate as I am.”

Villasin said she was also thankful to have Silvestri in her life, helping her as both a troop leader and religious mentor. The Scout said she appreciates Silvestri for introducing her and the rest of the troop to other Jersey Cares charitable endeavors such as painting schoolrooms and starting food drives.

Such civic-mindedness just goes to show the type of person Silvestri is, Villasin said.

“Ms. Clare is a very selfless woman who almost never thinks about herself but always her community,” Villasin said. “The coat drive is just one of many services she starts in our troop annually.”

Silvestri herself said she is just grateful that the residents of West Orange have been so generous in supporting the coat drive over the years, adding that many even seek her out during the summer and fall to ask when the collection will start. And the coats they give are quite nice too — in 2015 alone, she said, the Scouts received a full-length fur, two leather jackets and several coats with the tags still on them.

Repeat coat drive donor Pat Paxton said she contributed five or six coats, including two women’s winter coats and three or four men’s jackets. While the coat drive is of course a convenient way of getting rid of coats no longer needed, the West Orange resident said she likes to donate to the initiative because she knows the coats will go to a good cause. She commended Silvestri and the local Girl Scout troops for recognizing a need and working to help it.

“There are a lot of people out there who are less fortunate who could probably use the coats,” Paxton told the Chronicle in a Dec. 4 phone interview. “I think it’s a good idea.”