Two Westerville City Schools students are expanding their worlds while making the world a warmer place for those in need.
Working with ShareBacAPac, a two year old charity that distributes weekend meals to needy students in the district, Katie Haefner and Deseree Martin have created a coat closet, accepting donations and distributing coats to those who might otherwise shiver through the winter.
While the pair hopes to make winter warmer for children in the district, they are also gaining experience meant to help them in the real world.
Haefner and Martin, who have special needs, are part of the Best of Both Worlds Transition Program, a partnership between Otterbein University and the Westerville City School District.
The program includes about 15 students who have completed their academic requirements for graduation and now are learning the skills they need to be independent adults.
The students take field trips around central Ohio, learning to ride the bus, order at restaurants and enjoy community events. They attend Otterbein campus events and stroll through campus with their peers.
The program also matches students with employment opportunities suited to their skills and interests.
"We're really lucky that this has turned into a community-integrated program," said Best of Both Worlds job training coordinator Becky Haselberger. "It's like Katie said in one of her letters to (Superintendent Dan) Good: 'I learn things here that I need to know and that no one would teach me elsewhere.' "
For the coat closet, Haefner and Martin had to learn to solicit donations, work through the district's bureaucracy to create and hang fliers publicizing the coat closet and to work an unfamiliar washing machine to clean all of the donated coats.
Haefner said the project has taught her to be more patient and prioritize a to-do list.
For Martin, a natural introvert, it's helped her warm up a little to talking to strangers as she's approached local businesses about donating to the project or hanging fliers.
The creation of the coat closet came as a recommendation from ShareBacAPac, which Haefner and Martin began working with last year. As the project developed, ShareBacAPac's leaders handed it entirely over to Haefner and Martin to organize and run.
It appeals to both students' interests: Martin loves clothes and dreams of working some day in a clothing shop, while the public-relations side of the project appeals to Haefner's interest in journalism.
"She likes clothes, and I like to write," Haefner put it simply.
Haselberger said she is proud of the progress she has seen with the coat closet.
In the back room of ShareBacAPac's basement space in Uptown, about 60 coats ranging from preschool sizes to adult sizes, line the walls.
Haefner and Martin had a great response to fliers they hung at a local bank.
Gov. John Kasich's twin daughters Emma and Reese saw the flier and conducted their own coat drive, resulting in a sizeable donation.
The success shows how hard Haefner and Martin have worked, Haselberger said.
"I think they've finished a lot of tremendous problem solving that a lot of 20 year olds have never had to do," she said.
Now, Haefner and Martin are looking for people in need of coats to benefit from their work.
They've handed one coat out through the school district, and now they are advertising what they have through the district's counselors, fliers placed in the backpacks of ShareBacAPac recipients and through the Westerville Area Resource Ministry.
The closet still is in need of donations, too.
While all sizes are accepted, the coat closet mostly needs coats for preschool and younger school-aged children. They also need donations of detergent to launder the coats, or monetary donations to help with laundering the coats.
Haefner and Martin are hoping to make a computer database of their coats so those who are interested in receiving a coat will be able to "shop" the coat closet's inventory and select a style they like.
Haefner and Martin also soliciting local pizza shops for gift cards that can be given to families who receive help through ShareBacAPac for use over winter break.
"We're working on a lot of employability skills," Haselberger said. "The big thing now is trying to get the word out about the coat closet."
The skills they've learned will be a benefit to Haefner and Martin.
Haefner plans to graduate from the program at the end of this school year, and she'll begin taking classes at Columbus State Community College.
Martin will continue to work with the program while she, her parents and her teachers work together to move her toward graduation.
"That's one of the cool things about this program: It's completely student based. ... When the team feels the students have learned the skills they need for a successful adult life, they can move on," Haselberger said. "We're fortunate that Westerville schools have given us the manpower we need."
For more information on the coat closet, or to donate, email Haselberger at email@example.com.