Firefighters and breweries bring warmth to kids in Minnesota one coat at a time

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The St. Paul Fire Department with some of the Dayton’s Bluff Elementary School students who received new winter jackets in 2014 via Operation Warm // Photo courtesy of Colin Oglesbee

It’s almost unfathomable to consider enduring a Minnesota winter without a thick, warm, well-made, secure winter jacket. But thousands of people find themselves facing the harsh winds and biting temperatures each year without a coat to protect them. Many of those individuals are children.

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Photo courtesy of Colin Oglesbee

Operation Warm was founded in 2002 with the goal of serving children living in poverty by providing them with brand-new, American-made winter jackets. Over the years the non-profit has partnered with communities, groups, and agencies in 49 states; they now deliver coats to over 300,000 children annually.

Fire departments constitute one group with which Operation Warms partners, including the Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth departments here in Minnesota. Justin Johnson of Minneapolis Fire Local 82 heads Operation Warm in Minneapolis and says he first got the idea thanks to a Facebook post by an East Coast unit involved with the nonprofit. “I thought it would be a perfect program here in Minnesota since it can get pretty brutal here in the winter,” Johnson says. “I emailed Operation Warm in Philadelphia, they flew out to Minneapolis, and my life has been changed forever.”

Minneapolis’ first year with Operation Warm was 2013. They chose to donate coats to the elementary students at Lucy Craft Laney Community School in North Minneapolis, 98% of whom were enrolled in the free-or-reduced lunch program. To raise money for the coats, Johnson asked Fulton Brewing Company if they’d be interested in partnering in the effort. They were, and their inaugural Minneapolis Firefighters Department Block Party raised enough money to buy 600 coats.

In 2014, St. Paul and Duluth joined Minnesota’s Operation Warm effort. Colin Oglesbee, program director for St. Paul Firefighters Operation Warm, says he wanted to be a part of the program the moment he heard about it. “We sign up to be firefighters to solve problems and help our communities,” Oglesbee says. “This is a way to solve an immediate problem, as well as to get ahead of a problem.”

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Photo courtesy of Pioneer Press, Jean Pieri

Jon Otis, director for Duluth Firefighters Operation Warm, agrees. “My favorite part has been the conversations I’ve had […] about the need in our community,” Otis says. “This program gives kids the opportunity to just be kids and not have to worry about how they are going to get to school on the coldest days. If they can get to school these kids can get a healthy meal and some stability in their lives. They can concentrate on learning and focus on growing into our next generation of leaders.”

Oglesbee and Otis joined Johnson in the idea to partner with local breweries to raise money and awareness. The St. Paul department asked Flat Earth Brewing Company if they’d be interested in being involved; Duluth reached out to Bent Paddle Brewing Company. Both said yes. Additionally, the Duluth department organized a Beard Challenge: Five men are challenged to grow the ultimate beard during the month of October and raise money for Operation Warm. Whoever reaches his goal gets a professional shave at the Warm Duluth event (see below). In total, all three 2014 fundraisers brought in enough money to purchase and distribute over 2,500 coats to children within the departments’ cities as well as kids on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.

This year, Johnson says Minneapolis is aiming to raise enough money to provide 3,000 coats to children around the city and give coats to every kindergarten student on the Red Lake Reservation. St. Paul’s goal is to be able to buy 1,000 coats—enough to outfit all 650 students at the Paul and Sheila Wellston Elementary School as well as one other yet-to-be-determined school. Duluth is aiming to meet or exceed last year’s total of 900 jackets, and hopes to also reach homeless and transitional students, as well as those in the American Indian community.

With winter fast approaching, there’s no time like now to join in the effort to get as many coats to as many children across Minnesota as possible. To help the Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth fire departments reach their goals of outfitting children in their cities with warm, new, American-made jackets, consider one of the following opportunities:


The Third Annual MFD Block Party
Saturday, September 19
Fulton NE Brewery, 2540 2nd St NE, Minneapolis
Music by White Iron Band, food trucks, a cigar roller, bagpipers, and more

MFD Ladies Night Out
Thursday, October 8

The 514 Studios, 514 N 3rd St, Minneapolis
$55 adv, $75 at the door
Runway show, beverages, and hors d’oeuvres

St. Paul

Warmtober Fest
Friday, October 2
Flat Earth Brewery, 688 Minnehaha Ave E, St. Paul
$20 adv, $25 at the door
Music by Communist Daughter, tastings at 11 Wells Distillery, food trucks, and more
$20 advance, $25 door


Warm the Plaza
Thursday, October 1–Saturday, October 3
Minnesota Power Plaza, W Michigan St, Duluth
Times vary based on the day
Thursday night is “The Big Lebowski” movie night (7pm costume $10 donation, vikre additional $10, Friday = $10 for bent live music is Plaza Unplugged, and Saturday is Community Game Night; $10 bent, live action games at night–minute to win it.
Learn more at Warm the Plaza’s Facebook page 

Warm Duluth
Thursday, October 22
Clyde Iron Works, 2920 W Michigan St, Duluth
$20 adv, $25 at the door
Music by Big Wave Dave and the Ripples, a bounce house, beer from Bent Paddle Brewing, food from Clyde Iron, and beard shaving

If you can’t make it to these events, donations can be accepted online at and

About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road seeking out good food, drink, and fodder for her next story.

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