When temperatures plunged well below zero last week, employees of the St. Paul school district cringed when they heard about students huddled underneath only a towel at a bus stop.
The St. Paul Public Schools Foundation responded quickly with an appeal on Facebook, seeking winter coats for the district's 2,000 homeless students.
New and used donations poured in, double the number of coats requested.
Workers in the St. Paul School's Project Reach office, which serves homeless students, are rushing to get those coats, hats and mittens to the children who need them.
"Look at that, there's some scarves, and hats and a couple — oh, snow pants!" Supervisor Anne McInerney said as she looked in a box. "That's fantastic."
McInerney said when the wind chills are dangerously cold, teachers and staff worry about their students. Project Reach typically collects blankets and has some coats on hand, but this time, the office didn't have enough.
She reached out to district communications staff, who told Judy Hawkinson, development director for the St. Paul Public Schools Foundation, about the students at the bus stop.
"I was horrified," Hawkinson said.
Her appeal on Facebook, which asked for 500 coats, was shared more than 500 times. It worked. The drive collected 500 new coats and more than 500 used ones.
"I was so moved and honored and just happy to live in St. Paul, that so many people started sharing that Facebook post and it got out and out and out," Hawkinson said.
Now, a rack of brand new coats with the tags still on hang in the offices of Project Reach, ready to go out to students. Garbage bags of used coats are on their way to local cleaners that have volunteered their services.
McInerney said homelessness can seem like an invisible problem.
"You don't necessarily see families that are homeless," she said. "They've had to figure out other things, you know, so they're doubled up with other families or friends or they're staying in shelters."
Project Reach Home School Liaison workers like Wijit Xiong have been reaching out to parents to find out what their kids need, and then filling their cars with coats and delivering them to schools or wherever the families are staying.
On Tuesday, Xiong carried a brand new girl's pink jacket into Maxfield Elementary School.
"Brittany, I have your coat for you," he told the child. "How are you?"
As Xiong slipped the coat on the kindergartener and zipped it up for her, Brittany admired the puffy coat with the matching scarf and white fur trim around the hood.
"I like it!" she said.
Brittany followed social worker Laura Cole to have her name written in permanent marker inside her new jacket.
Coming up with winter gear for homeless families is an even greater challenge at Maxfield, a school that has many students who live in poverty. Many of the children have moved from place to place, she said.
"So sometimes maybe something has to be left behind because you need to move fast," Cole said. "You had it, but now you don't .. The difference in the need is that when you're moving around and maybe sometimes frequently, things don't always get to come with you even if you intended for them to."
Coats, hand-knit mittens and corporate donations of gloves and hand warmers continue to stream into Project Reach. Though the office blew past its 500 coat goal, it will continue to accept donations and pass them along to other students in need.