BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (WOOD) — By Nov. 1, the Charitable Union in Battle Creek will have handed out more than 2,000 free winter jackets to kids in need in its community.

Coats for Kids has become a widely popular and well-known event for the nonprofit, but while taking care of kids is what it was founded on in 1887, winter coats are only a small portion of how it does that now.

“(In 1887) there was a group of women, they were called the Ladies of Social Responsibility, and they noticed children loitering on the streets here in Battle Creek,” Charitable Union executive director Teresa Allen said. “So they talked to the kids, asked them what was going on: ‘Why are you not in school?’ And the answer was they were embarrassed by the way they were dressed. So they decided to hold a community dance in January of 1887 and they raised over $200 in profit to make and mend clothing.”

During the Great Depression, the Charitable Union was one of the first organizations to give out mortgage assistance to residents. It brought the first hospital and post-secondary education to Battle Creek. And it never wavered from its foundations, clothes and kids.

“Through the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, quilts like this one on the wall were being given to families,” Allen said as she referenced a multicolored quilt behind her. “We focus on kids ’cause it’s still the priority, make sure the child’s taken care of. But you know, 2022 looks a lot different than 1887 did. So we know to take care of the child, we’ve got to take care of the parents, too. We’ve got to make sure that whole family unit has what they need.”

Allen said that 19 years ago, volunteers had an idea that helped reshape how the organization helps. They took the quilts they had made through the years and began to sell them in a gift shop. The money generated was used to buy items the Union needed in its free store. Now, along with quilts and other handmade items, the shelves of the gift store are stocked with nearly everything imaginable. The money has helped the charity give away more than 500,000 free items to families in need through September of this year.

“Families are going to come in here and they’re going to shop for clothing, bedding, household items and more. We offer things from homeless hygiene kits to period packs — it’s one of our big programs, is period poverty,” Allen said. “We’re offering baby formula, workforce attire so folks can come in here and get an outfit for an interview.”

This year alone, Charitable Union has served more than 6,500 people. Ninety-eight percent of them rely on Medicaid or a Bridge Card. Of those, 14% are homeless and 44% are children.

“There’s just a lot of obstacles but what we can do is we can take your old and make it their new. Whether it’s your old coffee maker, your old coat, your old steel-toed boots, we make it their new and it helps them get through their day,” Allen said. “We’re here to serve. We’re here to make life a little bit better. We’re the help that brings hope.”

As winter approaches, that hope will come in the form of coats for 2,000 kids. They’ll be distributing the coats to children in need through the week and taking the remaining coats to the free store beginning Nov. 1. It’s a mission that hasn’t changed in 135 years: using clothes to make and mend community.

Learn more about the Charitable Union here.