Local nonprofits give away free winter apparel to homeless people in Kalamazoo

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Sherry Forrest said she heard from someone early Thursday morning that people were giving away free winter clothes at Bronson Park. She didn’t believe. But she went anyway.

“And I came through the park and saw the truck. People was there,” said Forrest wearing a smile and a Santa Claus hat. "I was like ‘Oh my goodness, let me see what’s going on.’ And it’s beautiful.”

She was one of the 75 people who shopped for new winter apparel and other goods at a makeshift store in Bronson Park. Three organizations — The Greater Michigan Search and Rescue, the Richard Hitchcock Group and the Venus Foundation — passed out over 100 coats, 60 blankets and 50 pillows to the homeless.

“We come together to make sure we try to get the homeless warm,” said Lessa Potter with the Search and Rescue team. “We’re offering socks, hats, gloves.”

The group transformed part of the park to look like an outdoor store, with the items laid on tables and coats and shirts hanging from a rope. There were knitted hats to fleece blankets to white athletic socks. The volunteers said they've known each other for years and are bonded by one single theme.

“We look for missing persons," said Venus Foundation President Mary Hopkins. "We thought to think out of the box this time [and] we would just go to the homeless, since most of the missing in this area are homeless."

Each of the organizations' founders have been personally touched by it too. Hopkins lost her niece Venus Stewart in April 2010 when she was murdered by her husband. Kellie Yunginger's cousin Richard Hitchcock went missing 26 years ago today. She and family members subsequently formed an organization bearing his name. Now they're dedicated to finding the 4,000 missing persons in the state. Pictures of ones missing locally were posted on a door by the clothes.

“When people come up that needs some clothing or a pillows or socks or hats, gloves whatever, we [turn] their attention to the door,” said Hopkins.  “We have extra posters to give out.”

Potter said that four people were recognized. They’re going to follow up on their leads at the Gospel Mission. She even allowed a few shoppers to connect with their own families if they haven't spoken to them in a while.

“A couple of them got to call their moms and other family members,” said Potter. “I let them use my phone and they got to talk to them personally and that’ll just warm you every time.”

The volunteers opened shop at 11 a.m. and within an hour, most of the items were gone. Many of the homeless walked away with smiling and gave the volunteers hugs.

“They’re also very kind and very appreciative of this,” said Yunginger who daily encounters homeless people on her bus route. “It’s very cold out here. Their feet are wet. They’re cold. Their hands are cold. Their faces are cold. They’re hungry. So being able to do this is a blessing to us.”

Each person was given a free Subway gift card. Volunteers said it was about meeting all their needs and not just keeping them warm. Whatever was left over was donated to the local YWCA.

“I came from being homeless,” said Sherry Forrest. "People need things and stuff. And some people for Christmas don’t have nobody to talk to and this will cheer them up. Give them a good thing to have, you know. This is beautiful. I love it.”

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