“Operation Warm & Healthy” Uses Winter Coats to Connect Families With Health Care

As nurse Mike Smierciak of the Aunt Martha’s Health and Wellness East Joliet clinic injects 3-year-old Jayden with flu vaccine, he cries while his dad watches.

By Ashleigh Nelson

Bright walls and bright smiles greeted families recently as they walked into Aunt Martha’s Health & Wellness clinic, 1200 Eagle St. in Joliet, Ill., to receive flu shots and free coats just in time for the upcoming dip in temperatures.

Browsing through piles of brightly colored coats and trying them on, parents and children sauntered in and out of the first floor lobby over the course of the three-hour event. Some were there for regularly scheduled check-ups and made a pit stop at the table set up in the far right corner. Others had heard of the event, through word of mouth and promotion, and made a special trip to outfit their kids for the season.

Photo Above: Dylan Wheeler tries on a new coat from Operation Warm with the help of Betsy Martinez of Aunt Martha’s Health & Wellness clinic.

Photo Above: Dr. Tamara Lim of Aunt Martha’s Health & Wellness in Joliet, Ill. gives some affection to 4-month old Rilee Paschal before giving her a flu shot.

The partnership between Operation Warm and Aunt Martha’s Health & Wellness, dubbed “Operation Warm & Healthy,” is a new program connecting disadvantage families in East Joliet with the local health clinic by gifting brand new winter coats to children. As a three-time Acting Up award winner, Operation Warm used their $5,000 award from The Chicago Community Trust to fund 250 brand new coats for this pilot.

In all, The Trust awarded $150,500 to 37 projects that will support tangible activities to benefit neighborhoods and the public good. These ideas were sparked through the Trust’s fifth annual On the Table – where Chicago-area residents came together on May 8 in mealtime conversations to engage in meaningful dialogue, develop new relationships and inspire action to make a difference in our communities.

Fifty percent of people who attended the “Operation Warm & Healthy” event received flu shots and physicals, and 80 percent of those families were new patients, reported Maria Chavez, manager of community and employee engagement at Aunt Martha’s.

Operation Warm’s partnerships across different community organizations all stem from the mission, “More Than a Coat.” In the first year that they received the award, they partnered with the community policing division of the Chicago Police Department to strengthen the relationship between police and the community. In 2017, they partnered with Chicago Public Libraries in the quest to improve literacy rates. By handing out coats in libraries, Operation Warm helped to connect families to other resources. This year, the partnership with Aunt Martha’s Health & Wellness stemmed from the need to connect families in underserved communities to health care services.

Photo Above: Crystal Padilla signs her four children up to receive winter coats at Operation Warm & Healthy. The information collected at the event by Aunt Martha’s Health & Wellness will be used to connect visitors to more of their services.

Photo Above: Rich Lalley of Operation Warm (left) and Maria Chavez of Aunt Martha’s Health & Wellness (right) partnered together to pilot Operation Warm & Healthy, a three-hour event involving a coat giveaway and flu shots for families in Joliet, Ill.

“A lot of people don’t know how to take care of their health issues or where to get mental health help, or help with addiction situations,” said Rich Lalley, development director of Operation Warm.

“Aunt Martha’s provides a lot of that, so the idea came up,  ‘Why don’t we give coats to kids at a health clinic?’” Lalley said. “All three programs that came out of the On the Table are examples of how Operation Warm is able to partner to get more impact from giving a coat than the intrinsic value of a coat alone,” said Rich.

In opening the door through free winter coats, the pilot drew in families who otherwise wouldn’t have come to the health clinic on their own. The opportunity to hand out coats gave staff a foot in the door to connect families with the wide range of services the health care center offers.

Aunt Martha’s Health & Wellness is a Federally Qualified Health Center with more than 24 locations throughout Illinois. Since 1972, Aunt Martha’s has provided physical, behavioral, and dental health care services, along with foster care and community wellness programs. Accredited by the Joint Commission, Aunt Martha’s is a nationally-recognized leader in care coordination and serves more than 70,000 patients and clients in Illinois annually.

“We provide services to families that do not even have life’s essential necessities,” said Dr. Tamara Lim, interim medical director at Aunt Martha’s Health & Wellness. “With programs like Operation Warm, we aren’t only providing coats during a cold season but health care as well.” Dr. Lim spent the day administering flu shots to the families who attended the winter coat pilot in between serving her regular patients.

“For many of our patients, finding their next meal and a place to stay are their priorities. It is our goal at Aunt Martha’s to focus on life’s necessities, including comprehensive health care and community-based services,” she said.

Some families only came in for the coats and, if nothing else, this act alone took a huge burden off of their plates for the winter. Sherika Washington brought her two sons in to get coats and left happy to check that off of her list.

“I think it’s [Operation Warm & Healthy] is really good, especially with it getting cold,” said Washington. “Coats are expensive, so it’s really great for the kids to be able to get them.”

Photo Above: 10-year old Hugo Garcia settles on his coat selection at Operation Warm & Healthy hosted by Operation Warm and Aunt Martha’s Health & Wellness. Each coat is brand new and manufactured specifically for Operation Warm.

Photos by John Booz