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Family starts tradition with new coat drive

 A coat hanging on a tree in downtown Cedar Springs. Post photo by M. Kleyn.\

By Judy Reed

A Cedar Springs grandmother who wanted to teach her grandchildren how good it feels to give has started a new family tradition with the giving of coats and sparked others to give as well. But she also hit a snag, and a local business owner stepped in to help with a compromise.

Cheri Kwekel, of Cedar Springs, knows what it’s like to be cold. “I grew up very poor, with eight siblings, and sometimes we were cold,” she recalled. So on Thanksgiving night, with her grandchildren there, and four extra coats there that they had outgrown, they decided to bring them into town and hang them on trees for anyone in need to take one. And each child wrote a heartfelt note to put in the pocket letting people know it was ok to take it.

It’s a trend that has taken off in the last two years, mostly in urban areas for the homeless, where people hang coats from trees and tie clothes to light poles to help people in need.

The next day the coats were gone. “My granddaughter said, ‘It makes my heart feel so good,” said Kwekel. And the kids decided they wanted to make it a Thanksgiving tradition.

The coat rack in front the Ensley office at 71 N. Main St. Courtesy photo.

Kwekel then had a friend give her a bunch of coats. One of her grandchildren took three to Grand Rapids, and then they took 25 more and hung them in downtown Cedar Springs. All had notes in their pockets. She said one church’s young Sunday School class wrote notes for her that said things like, “Merry Christmas, Jesus loves you.”

Kwekel said that the Laundromat donated clear plastic bags to cover the coats in case of bad weather.

But there was one thing she did not do: she did not check with the City first before hanging the coats on the trees.

Kwekel checked on them twice, and the last time there were four left. The next day the coats were gone. Kwekel was upset when she found out why—the City had taken them down and dropped them off to Laura Ensley, of Ensley Five Star Realty, who was also collecting coats for those in need.

City Manager Mike Womack explained what could happen and that he felt there was a better way.

“While I appreciate the intention behind what they are doing I have to discourage this practice. I am concerned that the coats will fall off the tree onto the ground and get covered in snow and mud, at which point the DPW would likely pick them up and either dispose of them or donate them to charity. The City is also not in a position to try and distinguish between abandoned property and any particular group’s charity work. The City finds all sorts of abandoned property throughout the City all year round and we pick that up and dispose of it. Abandoned property can cause all sorts of problems from being aesthetically unattractive, being a tripping hazard and fouling up City snowplow equipment,” he said. He noted that perhaps the person hanging the coats could check with Ensley or another business owner about dropping the coats there.

“Laura Ensley is already engaged with donating winter coats to the local school district who are identifying persons in need of assistance and making sure that the coats are getting to those people. Again, while I fully appreciate the thought process behind this program, I believe that it is in everyone’s best interest for this to be done in a better regulated manner,” he said.

Ensley contacted Kwekel, and the two came up with a plan. Ensley agreed to let Kwekel hang the coats outside of her business on a coat rack.

“I didn’t leave the coats there to be destructive to Cedar Springs,” she said. “My main thing is to teach my grandchildren it’s good to give when needed. And we have a big need here in Cedar Springs.”

She said one lady who took a coat texted her and told her it’s the warmest coat she’s had in two years. 

Kwekel is glad for a resolution and said she will not hang the coats on city trees in the future. She and her grandchildren will continue to give the coats and write notes to put inside of them. 

She said that anyone who would like to donate coats should drop them off at 71 N. Main at the Ensley office. The coat rack is right outside.

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