WEST VALLEY CITY — There was plenty of warmth to go around at Hillsdale Elementary School on Monday.
Nearly 150 students lined up for a turn to pick out a brand new coat, with the help of about 20 delighted firefighters, as part of Operation Warm, a nationwide charity that gives coats to children who may not have them.
"It feels warm and nice," sixth-grader Vakapuna Foketi said of his new red coat. "It made me feel good because I only had hoodies, not a big coat like this one."
West Valley City firefighters gave out 140 coats Monday, and even went out to buy a few more for kids whose sizes were not available.
Some kids, like fifth-grader Valentina Bolkeim, were just as excited about meeting the special guests as getting a new coat.
"I feel awesome," she said, "because we get to meet the firefighters."
The first responders felt the same.
"It's always a fun time. … We love to see the kids," said West Valley City firefighter and paramedic Tommy Lloyd.
He said it's important for the department to keep up a good reputation in the community, so they know that "anyone can come talk to us, whether they're having a good day or bad day. We're here," he said. "So it's kind of an added bonus that they not only get a coat — they get to see us."
It's a big deal. We have so many kids that don't have (coats), and it breaks my heart to see them go out to recess with light jackets on when it's freezing outside.
–Principal Deb Woolley, Hillsdale Elementary School
Hillsdale Principal Deb Woolley smiled as she ushered students onto the stage to get their coats.
"It's a big deal. We have so many kids that don't have them, and it breaks my heart to see them go out to recess with light jackets on when it's freezing outside," Woolley said. "Families are doing the best they can, but they can't afford every little thing. So it really does change their lives. … We're just so grateful."
Operation Warm has similar coat giveaways every year around the Wasatch Front and across the country. The project focuses on schools with a significant amount of students below the federal poverty level.
Both school and fire officials agreed it's hard for kids to learn if their basic necessities aren't met.
"(I have) seen my students not be able to function in class because they're hungry or cold," said Lindsey Hester, a former teacher who is now a counselor with Granite School District. "They need their needs met before they can learn."
"Some kids have never had their own coat," added Zackery Hatch, president of West Valley Professional Firefighters. "Being able to make a difference in these kids' lives — we've seen them where they turned around and became leaders in the school just after something simple like this. It means a lot to us."
To not "segregate" the students, organizers worked with school social worker Tyler Robinson to identify entire class groups in need, and others who would receive them at another time.
"When kids get a brand new coat that's just theirs, they get their name in it, they have ownership of it, it just really makes them feel special and important," Robinson said.
Hatch and Lloyd both also talked about the kids having their names written on their new coat tags, and how it helps them realize it's their very own coat — not just to borrow or share.
Operation Warm's vision is that every child feels warm, valued and empowered.
"Children living in poverty are accustomed to receiving second-hand clothing. By providing a new coat, especially around the holidays, a child is not only provided with warmth, but also a boost in joy and self-esteem," the organization said in a news release.