By Elena Olmstead
It's hard to imagine the impact Project Warm Up has had on the communities throughout Benton and Franklin counties over the past three decades — the number of babies wrapped in warm blankets because of this group of volunteers; the homeless touched by the gift of toiletries and warm gloves; and the school children who have warm hats to wear in freezing weather.
[blockquote quote="This is where we live, where we pay taxes, where we worship – so this is who we serve." source="Holli Calder-Cox, the director of Project Warm Up" align="right" max_width="300px"]
Since 1983, the volunteers who make up Project Warm Up have done nothing but help. While the organization doesn’t quite resemble the operation it was in the 1980s, its goal is the same. It’s a group of dedicated volunteers who make the lives of people in their communities just a bit better and a bit warmer. Holli Calder-Cox, the director of Project Warm Up, joined the nonprofit 17 years ago.
Cox said over the years the organization has been headed by several different groups. It was started in 1983 by the United Way, but also was run by the Retired Senior Volunteer Project (RSVP) group. Cox started volunteering by helping with paperwork with Project Warm Up when it was being run by the RSVP group. It didn’t take Cox long to go from volunteering a few days a week to running the program.
“It’s evolved over the years,” Cox said. The first year of Project Warm Up, the organization handed out 800 hats. Last year the organization donated more than 25,000 items to those in need throughout community. This year, they’ve already handed out more than 3,500 blankets alone.
When Project Warm Up first started, the idea was to provide hats to children throughout Benton and Franklin counties, with the volunteers handing out the hats.
Now, Project Warm Up partners with other agencies and nonprofit groups so they can reach more people. That has also led to the organization expanding the types of work it does. Project Warm Up has an army of volunteers who spend their spare time knitting, crocheting and sewing – stitching together hats, blankets, scarves, mittens, baby sweaters, booties and slippers. There is also a group of women who clip coupons, people who donate toiletries and others who take in plastic grocery bags and empty egg cartons, among many other things.
The list of organizations that receives donations from Project Warm Up is long and never seems to stop growing. Cox said they help everyone from the local Boys and Girls Clubs to the local crisis centers. They donate warm hats and scarves to children in 83 schools from Connell to Prosser. They also work to help ensure homeless children in Benton and Franklin counties have the toiletries they need, and hats and mittens to keep them warm.
While it may seem strange that the group also takes in plastic grocery bags and empty cartons, it doesn’t take long for Cox to explain what they do with those things. She said they have a way to turn the plastic grocery bags into a plastic yarn-like material that can then be crocheted into sleeping mats for the homeless. The mats protect the homeless from off the wet ground, providing warmth on cold nights.
The egg cartons are donated to local food banks, which buy their eggs in bulk and then have the task of placing them in the donated cartons so they can go to the families in need.
The idea behind the group is to make sure everyone in the community knows there are people out there who care. The group also gives talented people in the community an opportunity to make a difference. Cox is also proud because she ensures that every donation that comes in the door goes back out to help those in the community. “We’re all volunteers,” Cox said. “We take no form of government money.”
The only grants Cox applies for are grants that originate inside of Benton and Franklin counties. She wants the money to stay local, while not taking funding opportunities away from other nonprofits in other communities. She said they also rely heavily on donations from the community, as well as their local Rotary Clubs, churches and the Eagles.
The group also conducts several raffles throughout the year - making special quilts and auctioning them off to raise money for the group. As for the volunteers who make things for Project Warm Up, that support comes from throughout the community. There are groups of volunteers who meet at local churches, community groups, assisted living facilities and there is even a group of 70 people who volunteer as part of program at Coyote Ridge Correctional Center.
Cox tries to visit different groups at least once a month to collect the things they’ve made and distribute supplies. Project Warm Up tries to keep a selection of different yarns and fabrics on hand. “We’re just about helping our community,” Cox said. “This is where we live, where we pay taxes, where we worship – so this is who we serve.”
Cox said the volunteers who make up Project Warm Up take care of not only the community, but also each other. She said the Leadership Team – a group of 10 volunteers, including herself — often get together outside of the office to bowl, have dinner or catch a movie. They’ve really become a family, she said. “We have a bond between us,” Cox said. That bond has lead to the evolution of the program that helps so many. Cox estimates that last year, as a group, their volunteers put in almost 50,000 volunteer hours.
“You don’t volunteer that much, put that much personal time into something, unless it’s a passion – unless you care,” Cox said.
For more information on Project Warm Up or to volunteer, find them on Facebook, call 509-546-8923 or stop by the office at 720 W. Court St., Pasco. The office is open from 9 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday.
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