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In praise of a warm blanket

Published January 16. 2010 09:00AM

It is only 6 p.m. with the coldest part of the night still ahead as I am on my way to a newspaper assignment.

I am dressed in insulated underwear, in addition to three layers of clothing, but I'm still shivering. I heard on the radio that schools were closed today here in Florida because of the cold.

I bet Pennsylvania readers are wondering why they would close schools just because it's cold. If they did that in Pennsylvania, school would be closed for weeks or even months at a time.

But here in Florida we're used to sunshine and used to being concerned about the heat index, not frost warnings. Plus, when they build homes here, many are simply cinderblock topped with wallboard and little or no insulation.

The weather is our story of the week, with three-inch newspaper headlines heralding, "Arctic Blast hits Southwest Florida."

I didn't save many of my cold weather clothes from Pennsylvania so I am living in the same few sweaters and fleece-lined jackets. No matter how many clothes I put on, I'm still cold. And that's when I'm staying in the house, not venturing outside.

For my assignment, I only have to walk a short distance from my car to a church hall. But in those few minutes of exposure, my face freezes.

While the cold weather is downright painful, where I am headed is even more painful to imagine. I am assigned to do a story on the first cold weather emergency shelter to open in our town. The shelter is for those who are homeless as well as those who don't have any heat in their homes.

"More people than you think simply can't afford to get their heating system fixed," says the woman in charge of the shelter. She knows that only too well. For eight months, she hasn't had the money to fix her own system.

As the coordinator of a church program to help the poor and homeless, Pat sees first hand what happens to so many of us who live from paycheck to paycheck. When they lose their jobs, they can't pay their mortgage and soon they lose their homes, too. It's happening here to families who never dreamed they would be homeless.

She tells of one homeless family where the mother and father sleep outdoors on cardboard sheets so their kids can stretch out in their old car.

That image - the picture of parents laying outside on cardboard so their kids can have the "luxury" of ice cold car seats, tugs at my heart. I know I have to do something - even if it is only buying blankets for the homeless shelters.

Obviously, many people feel the same way. Without being asked, many responded to a story in the local paper about the first cold weather shelter opening. They came to the church with blankets and coats to donate. Those who have little protection against the weather gladly snatched up each donation.

In our area, one tiny church in a poorer section of town keeps running out of clothes and food to give away. "People come in with donations of cold weather clothes which we pile in the corner. Within a few hours, all the clothes are gone but the poor and homeless keep coming," said one volunteer.

I know it's the same in many areas. There is much more demand than there are donations.

I've talked to some church leaders and advocates for the poor who tell me they encounter many people who can't afford to go to Goodwill. They can't afford to pay $10 for a coat or $5 for a sweater.

The deprivation and desperation of so many people is starting to make me think about John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. When I read that book as a kid, I was moved by the poverty he captured. I never thought I would see that desperation come to life again decades later.

The next time you open your closet and have your choice of coats to wear, remember those who have none.

I used to think I was thankful for every little thing, but I never thought to thank God for the gift of a heavy coat or a warm blanket. I do now.

I have enough blankets in my Florida house. But they are the white, light cotton type. I specifically bought light cotton because that's the only kind of blankets we need in Florida. Until now.

A friend gave me one of those big, heavy, fleece blankets that she had from her home in the north. As I burrow under its wonderful warmth, I say a silent thank you for the gift of a warm blanket.

There are some everyday gifts we shouldn't take for granted.

If you can come home to a warm house, be grateful.

If you can move the thermostat up whenever you feel chilled, be grateful.

If you can go to bed at night and cover yourself with warm blankets, be grateful.

And if you have any "spares" around, remember those who are sorely in need of cold weather clothes and warm blankets.

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