By Curt Yeomans
More than 600 students at Huie Elementary School in Forest Park were beaming with joy recently as they sorted through clothing racks in the school's gymnasium.
The students were picking out new coats on Thursday given to them by Charming Shoppes, inc., which owns such stores as Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug, Catherine's Plus Sizes and Petite Sophisticate.
Operating under a program called Keeping Kids Warm, Charming Shoppes has provided the gift of winter coats to students since 1995.
Since its inception, the organization has distributed more than 70,000 coats. Schools across the nation receive new coats, but only five from Georgia were picked this year. All five are in Clayton County.
In addition to Huie, Charming Shoppes donated coats to students at Haynie, Lee Street, Kilpatrick and Tara elementary schools.
"Our mission is to give back to our communities and the people who are our customers," said Eric Payne, a district manager for Lane Bryant's Georgia stores.
School administrators apply a year in advance to participate in the project, and have to write an essay saying why their school should be selected.
Yvette Morelon, a social worker for the Clayton County school system, submitted 11 schools from the county for the program in October 2006. She was told last December that Huie and the other schools were chosen.
"My employees were getting a lot of requests from clients for winter coats," Morelon said. "So, I did a Google search for 'free coats' and a story came up about a Keeping Kids Warm project that was done at a school in Atlanta last year."
The various companies, which fall under the Charming Shoppes umbrella, solicit financial donations from their customers. The donations are then used to purchase coats for the Keeping Kids Warm project. Students, who have obtained signed permission slips from their parents, are allowed to look through the racks of coats, and pick their favorite, with the assistance of volunteers from stores operated by Charming Shoppes.
"It just brings joy to my heart to be able to help them [the students] get a coat," said Christy Bronson, a sales associate from a Lane Bryant store in Macon. She was one of the volunteers who came to Forest Park to help students pick out a coat.
Crystal Collins, a fourth-grader at Huie Elementary, looked through three racks of coats, with Bronson's assistance, before she found a black coat, with tan fur lining and the hood that she liked.
She said the hardest part of finding a coat was matching what looked good, with what was available in her size. After finding the coat, Collins said she was anxious to wear it around town.
"I like that it has fur on it," Collins said. "It's very pretty. The only downside is that it's too warm to wear it right now."