Twenty-eight years ago, Arni Stephenson saw a need in his community and decided to fill it. In the fall of 1993, he started the first Koats for Kids event to help get warm, winter clothing into the hands of area children. When Stephenson passed away in 2004, the Rotary Club of Whitecourt, who had been running the event for several years already, decided to name the event in his honour. Fast forward a couple of decades, and many donated coats later, Arni Stephenson's Koats for Kids event, presented by the Whitecourt Rotary Club, continues to be a life-changing event.
On Thursday, November 4, a large group of volunteers met up at the old Scotia Bank location in Midtown Mall to sort through donations received over the last month. In the crowd were Stephenson's daughters, Kelly and Kathy, members of the Rotary Club, and a bunch of eager hockey players. It turned out that the newly developed EHA Wolverines had wanted to collect coats and winter gear for those in need too. Several weeks back, they connected with the Rotarians running Koats for Kids and decided to join forces.
"They are helping each other out and talking and mingling. I think it's good to see the kids spending this time doing something good for their community," said Joel Cote, Whitecourt EHA Wolverines Director. "I think it's teaching them a ton about generosity and showing them how community members can come together to help people that need our support. It's showing them life lessons and also kindness." Cote said he hopes they carry on wanting to volunteer. "I think they really enjoyed getting to be part of it, and I hope it inspires them to keep going."
Michelle Robinson, the chairperson for Koats for Kids, said the hockey team wasn't the only youth group involved. "The grade eight leadership team from Percy Baxter have donations to hand over, five bags full. They have been using this opportunity to grow stewardship of the event and do some home economic learning in washing, folding, and prepping the coats. That partnership will be secured for the future years, and those students will become another piece of this amazing community puzzle."
She said she is overcome with gratitude to see so many "hands in the kitchen" to help make the event a success. As to the hockey players working with her and the other volunteers, Robinson said it's exciting. "Not only do they have more energy than the rest of us, but they are so used to coordinating their efforts already as a team, so you can see the natural leadership that is already within them to get the job done. They also take direction well, which is fantastic on my end as an organizer. It's wonderful to see it go that quickly, and it speaks for itself to have their partnership."
For Kelly Romanchuk, continuing to volunteer in the event that her father started all those years ago is something she and her sister, Kathy, treasure. This year, getting to work alongside youth is even better. "I think it's important that the kids volunteer at a young age because then they will continue to volunteer and will remember how good it felt. They will keep doing this as they get older and will introduce their kids to volunteering too. It feels good to do things for your community, and so once you realize that, when it comes to volunteering, you'll want to be there and part of it." She said it's also much quicker to have the help. "The boys jumped into action as soon as boxes came in. Today is the fastest it has ever gone," laughed Romanchuk.
For the kids, getting to help was something they enjoyed doing. "It feels good. I love doing this to support others," said 11-year-old Hudson Ross, who plays centre for the EHA Wolverines. "It's awesome to see how much stuff was collected for people who don't have things, and it feels great to be part of it." His teammate, 12-year-old Holden Everitt, right wing, agreed. "I think this is a great cause, and I think other teams should do stuff like this too. It helps the community and people that don't have a lot."
Austin Cote, 13, who plays left wing on the team, said it was nice to help. "I liked getting to sort it, and I like knowing that people will have something warm to wear during the winter. I think it's really respectful of people to donate all of this." His father, Joel Cote, said he is proud of the whole team and has plans to do more. "We are looking at even more things. We thought about giving Christmas gifts to the seniors and things like that to get these kids more involved and show them life lessons within their community."
Robinson said they had an incredible selection available this year, including a ton of new boots. "A lady bought off-season boots last year when things were clearing out at Walmart. She cleared out all the sizes and donated twelve bags full of brand new boots. That was 23 pairs of boots!" Robinson said the lady, who wanted to remain anonymous, used to buy boots for her grandchildren each year, and now that they are grown, she is choosing to share that love with the community.
The event's success is even helping other communities as organizers have reached out to learn through the experiences in Whitecourt. "Thank you to this community for once again showing that there is an immense amount of generosity. Even in the hardship times, we continue to pull together as a community to help those who need it. We shared the warmth," exclaimed Robinson, proving once again that Arni Stephenson's legacy lives on.
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press