December 2, 2003
Not so long ago, Cheryl Jensen was talking with husband, Bill, chief operating officer for Vail Mountain, who mentioned in passing the ski company had about a hundred zillion left over sets of insulated employee coats and pants.
What on Earth, he wondered aloud, were they going to do with 30,000 sets of this stuff?
All Cheryl needed to do was to narrow her ideas down to a specific planet.
She got together with people she knew, who got together with people they knew, and faster than you could say “heartwarming,” they had thousands of pieces of winter clothing shipped to dozens of developing countries where the brutal cold puts the problems you and I have with our cell phone batteries in its proper perspective.
The coat drive has been going on for a few years now, and this year the Colorado-based National Ski Areas Association is involved, providing administrative help and much needed storage space. This year, 30,000 sets of insulated clothes – the most ever – from 23 resorts around the U.S. are on their way to cold-weather Third World countries. The amount of clothing fluctuates as ski areas purchase new uniforms for their seasonal workers. Every two or three years, when Vail Resorts buys new uniforms, the amount goes way up.
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The help is immediate. Last year, a refugee camp in northern Sweden was home to 700 Russian and Afghan refugees. To keep them from freezing to death, the relief organization Help International sent a shipment of sweaters. A couple weeks later, a load of 600 insulated coats and pants showed up at the camp, just ahead of frostbite and death. It stays cold up near the Arctic Circle.
This year’s shipments go all over the globe. Overcrowded orphanages and refugee camps in Hungary, Romania, Argentina and northern Iraq will be on the receiving end. There’s a winterization project in Albania. Many will wear insulated Vail/Beaver Creek clothing. The logo has never looked better.
“For some of these kids in Romanian orphanages, this is the nicest thing they have,” said Jensen. “You just get together with people over time and things begin to happen. You get these reactions and it makes you want to do more. It all goes to places where people need it and appreciate it.”
Matter of survival
Consul General for Hungary Gene Megyesy said it’s simple. Hundreds of people get to be warm; hundreds get to stay alive.
A great idea catches on pretty quickly, and it wasn’t long before the program became as important as, well … coats to cold people.
Organizers even have a name common to ski areas: “S.W.A.G.,” which stands for “Sending Warmth Around the Globe,” instead of free stuff, the term’s more common connotation.
If it sounds like work, it is – labors of love often are. If it sounds like a lot of money, it isn’t. Berry said the S.W.A.G. program only costs a couple thousand dollars a year to run.
Shipping – the key to any cash flow situation – is free. Federal Express is providing a cargo plane and a truck to get the clothing where it needs to go. Anyone going anywhere can haul a load of coats. A duffle bag weighs in at about 40 pounds.
Jensen, who started this program a few years back, said she thought she’d be in it about two or three years, then get out. She was mistaken, in a good way.
“I’m still in it,” she said, laughing.
The good stuff lasts.