OLEAN — Volunteer Ann Marie Sitter Tompkins originally thought a coat drive to provide warm winter clothes to children in need in 2020 would be a one-time effort.
But the success of that first winter clothing distribution and the obvious need for it led to the official establishment of a new nonprofit, Operation Warm Hearts, to make the distribution of new clothing to area children a full-time effort.
Recently, the agency decided to establish an agency endowment fund at the Cattaraugus Region Community Foundation to make sure their efforts will be sustainable for many years to come.
The organization began when Sitter Tompkins’s mother, Mary Basnight, passed away at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Due to restrictions, Tompkins could not be with her mother or hold a formal funeral at the time, so she decided to lead an effort to provide mittens to area youth, under the name Mary’s Mittens, in her mother’s honor.
“A couple of my friends had heard about that, and they had been wanting to start a project to provide winter coats called Jackie’s Jackets, so we decided to marry the two,” Sitter Tompkins, now Operation Warm Hearts president, remembered. “And that is how Operation Warm Hearts began.”
The efforts of Operation Warm Hearts, made up originally by Sitter Tompkins, Pamela Shumway and Claudia Attard, culminated in the distribution of some 300 coats to needy area youth last November at a distribution day in Lincoln Park.
Sitter Tompkins remembered that the day was particularly cold in Western New York, and yet many kids showed up to the event without a coat on their back.
That day cemented the need for Operation Warm Hearts to become a permanent organization.
“At the end of the event we thought that was it,” she said. “And then I got home and the phone calls started coming in.”
Sitter Tompkins said she received numerous calls from families and area agencies asking if there were any coats remaining and if there would be another distribution day.
Ever since, Operation Warm Hearts has been operating on a full-time basis.
The agency now buys new winter clothing and boots for children from infancy to 18. Every child also now receives a book at their grade reading level as well as a toothbrush and toothpaste.
Despite the agency’s name, Operation Warm Hearts now fills a need during more than the winter months.
They also had an event recently that distributed back-to-school clothing. Operation Warm Hearts also works with other community agencies like Parent Education Program and Intandem to distribute clothing and resources for families in need.
As Operation Warm Hearts began to develop as an organization, Sitter Tompkins said she and the other volunteers decided to look at the Cattaraugus Region Community Foundation as a resource for its growth.
“We had heard so many good things about the Foundation and how they could guide us to be better than we were,” said Sitter Tompkins. “We were so new that we needed a guiding hand to help us in the right direction to best serve the community.”
The Operation Warm Hearts Inc. Fund at CRCF is an agency endowment that will provide sustainable and continued funding for an agency just beginning its journey in meeting the needs of the community.
Sitter Tompkins hopes that the funding and relationship will help the agency meet needs that come up down the road, like the need for a new physical location that will be a permanent home to house the agency and its stock of clothing for distribution.
The need for a new building is a significant one for the agency, Sitter Tompkins added, as it shops year-round for supplies and stores enough clothing and accessories to be distributed to over 300 people.
Operation Warm Hearts will present its second annual coat distribution event 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 2 at 318 Wayne St.
Those who are willing and able to donate new coats or winter accessories are encouraged to contact Sitter Tompkins at (716) 560-8811.
Besecker and Coss will also be holding a “Great Pumpkin Shoot” benefit for Operation Warm Hearts on Nov. 7. Registration will begin at noon at Besecker and Coss. The entry fee for the event is $15.
Donations can be made to the Operation Warm Hearts Fund at CRCF, 301 North Union St., Suite 203, Olean, NY 14760 or online at cattfoundation.org.