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Diaconate community donates coats to halfway house residents

Helps fill dire need as cold intensifies

By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant

WATERLOO — Winter has come to Iowa, and with it, bitterly cold temperatures, but thanks to the generosity of the local diaconate community, this December is a bit warmer than it would otherwise be for the men of the Residential Facility, a halfway house in Waterloo.

The deacons of the Archdiocese of Dubuque have donated more than 40 winter coats and other warm clothing items, such as hats and gloves, to the residents of the correctional facility as part of a recent clothing drive.

“I think it’s wonderful that we’ve been able to do something to help,” reflected Deacon Jeff Harris, who, with his wife, Nancy, serves St. Mary Parish in Marshalltown.

Deacon Harris is also the assistant coordinator for the Jail and Prison Ministry for the Archdiocese of Dubuque. This fall, he learned that with the winter months quickly approaching, there was a great need for coats among the men living at the Residential Facility, or the RF, as it is commonly called.

The men at the RF center (and the women there, too, in a separate section) are court appointed by local county jails to be there, or are state or federal prisoners residing there as a transitional step before reentering society. Many residents lack cars or drivers licenses and walk to get to their places of employment.

Lisa Dow, a probation/parole officer, and Helen Kemp, a mental health counselor, who both work with residents at the facility, shared with Deacon Harris that there were a lot of men there who had nothing more than a denim jacket to wear outside to protect against the coming cold; many had no winter coat at all.

That problem was only made worse by the fact that some of the local stores run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Salvation Army were depleted of their second-­hand items earlier this season than normal as a result of the flooding in the area this past summer.

“I was told there was a lot of need for winter coats, and in a variety of sizes. There was even one man who was walking to Cedar Falls from Waterloo for a construction job every day that needed something warm to wear,” Deacon Harris remembered. “I thought this might be a good opportunity for the deacon community to help.”

The annual retreat for the deacons of the archdiocese was only weeks away, so Deacon Harris reached out to his fellow deacons prior to their late-October gathering, telling them about the need for coats and requesting their assistance.

“The deacon community quickly step­ped forward to help,” Deacon Harris said. “They brought items with them to the retreat, both new and used; they covered the whole spectrum.”

Some used items needed to be cleaned, so Deacon Harris contacted Prestige Quality Dry Cleaning in Waterloo, owned by Patrick and Jodi Klein, parishioners of nearby St. Edward Parish.

“When Jeff called and told me what the deacons were doing, I told him I was happy to clean the coats and do it for free,” Patrick Klein said. “It was a good cause, and I wanted to help in any way I could.”

After they were finished being cleaned, the used items, along with the new ones, were delivered to the RF center and are now in the process of being distributed.

Kemp, who is helping to pass out the coats and other warm clothing items, said there is a lot of gratitude among the men receiving them.

“This morning I gave out two coats,” she said recently, on a day when the high temperature was only in the single digits. “The first guy came in with just a sweatshirt and a light jacket over that. He was so thankful to have the coat when he left. The second person came in wearing his prison jacket, which is just a denim jacket with a light lining. He left here with a hooded warm coat — and all smiles!”

“The clients are thrilled when they get a new coat,” Kemp added. “It means so much to them. The generosity of the donors is much appreciated.”

Deacon Harris said he is happy that he and his fellow deacons have been able to give some assistance to these men who don’t have many material items and are doing their best to rebuild their lives.

He believes the project was also good for the deacons themselves and gave them the opportunity to put their faith into action and live out the Christian call to serve ­others.

“Many of us had second or third coats, and then there were others who didn’t have any coat at all,” Deacon Harris said. “Thinking back to what Jesus said in Scripture — ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.’ The person we were really giving our coats to was Christ.”

Deacon Jeff Harris (left) poses with Shane Fink, a recipient of one of the coats collected in the recent coat drive for those in need who have recently been released from prison. The diaconate community also donated other warm clothing items such as hats and gloves. The coats were cleaned free of charge through a business owned by St. Edward Parish members and were distributed at a residential facility in Waterloo. (Contributed photo)