Arguably, the weather hasn’t been too frightful this winter, but Latanya Binion and her five children will be prepared when it does take a turn for the worse.
In December, Anita Norman invited Binion and her children to her home on Harlem Avenue where she dished out refreshments and soon after, brand new coats for Binion’s children. The outreach is part of Norman’s One Coat, One Child program now in its second year.
“The kids are loving this,” Binion said, as she watched her children play with Norman’s son, Justin Bellanfonte. “It’s going to be their best Christmas thanks to Anita.”
The program was created last year to assist children from low-income families in Forest Park, Chicago, and the surrounding areas. Those in need of winter gear are given coats, scarves and gloves, all of which are new. Donations are accepted Oct. 1 through March 1, and are delivered to families each month. Going into its second year, the program has already warmed the lives of dozens of children.
Binion has been staying at a Salvation Army homeless shelter with her kids for more than three months now and recently found employment at O’Hare International Airport. She’s ready to get back on her feet, and with some assistance from the shelter and Norman, is taking the necessary steps toward her goal.
“I’ve been to hell and back,” Binion said. “But I’m taking it one day at a time. That’s all I can do.”
As a single mother herself, Norman has struggled to provide a better life for her family. Raised in a low-income household, Norman said she was often told she wasn’t going anywhere. For eight years she worked as a housekeeper and nanny in Winnetka, Ill., and eventually put herself through college.
“Life can make you bitter or better. It’s your choice,” Norman said.
Three years ago, Norman worked as a family case manager in Chicago. One winter day she spotted a boy walking to school without a coat. It was a cold day, she said, windy and snowy. The boy was wearing a sleeveless shirt. Norman went into the school to inquire after him, and was told that he’d been without a coat for weeks.
“It just broke my heart,” Norman said. “The school had known about it, but nothing was done. So I went out and bought him a coat.”
That event inspired Norman to extend her generosity to others and she created the One Coat, One Child program. Acknowledging that kids can’t always help themselves, Norman has set out to provide assistance, proclaiming that if she can’t find donors, she’ll just buy more coats.
“Getting coats for families, that’s my baby,” Norman said. “How can I ask God for anything grand if I’m not doing anything myself?”
Norman said she has been blessed with the help and support of a number of people. Friends, coworkers, corporate sponsors and members of the Naperville, Ill., Church of Christ have all assisted Norman in her endeavors.
Norman currently works at an investment firm in Oak Brook, Ill., and spends her evenings and weekends working out of her home office making phone calls to schools and shelters inquiring after children in need. In addition to her program, she frequents shelters and unemployment offices where she helps people write resumes.
Even her son, who is 8 years old and attends Betsy Ross Elementary, brings home coats donated by classmates and joins her on deliveries.
“I let Justin see the difference so he can count his blessings,” Norman said. “It instills good values and morals.”
Those lessons aren’t lost on her son, who said the gratitude expressed by the recipients is reward enough.
“I think the program is pretty nice,” Bellanfonte said. “My favorite part is delivering the coats with my mom and seeing the thank you notes she gets from families.”
And Norman has received a number of thank you letters. Just recently she received one from a boy who was given a limited edition Chicago Bulls coat. She has also received letters from parents who, Norman said, always seem to express their surprise.
“I went from Anita Norman to Ms. Norman overnight,” she said. “People don’t forget what I do.”
According to Norman, there’s always a need for coats. And while any coat is better than none, the coats she collects are all new because “new coats send a stronger message.”
Donors have sent her coats from L.L. Bean and other name brand stores.
“There’s no greater gift than knowing I took care of a child,” Norman said. “I feel blessed. There’s no price you can put on that.”