Watching children arrive at school on cold winter days without coats, gloves, hats or socks deeply disturbed Melissa Paton, an elementary-school teacher who died last week from cancer.
Christi Rogers said her daughter could not stand to see children come to school cold. It bothered her so much that she began picking up winter coats and dropping them off at Ark City schools to help those children.
“I mean seriously, it broke her heart, she hated that,” Rogers said. “The little kids that she taught and their siblings, she kind of considered them as hers.”
Paton, 40, passed away Dec. 29 after battling pancreatic cancer. A wife and mother of two young children, she had taught pre-school, first grade and PE at Sacred Heart School, and pre-school at Roosevelt Elementary before that.
Her mother said this week the family got together to find a way to honor Melissa by doing something that would have been important to her.
They decided to create the Melissa Rogers Paton Warm Heart Fund for Kids for people to donate items to help needy kids stay warm.
“If you’ve got a few minutes and a few extra dollars, grab a coat and deliver it to an elementary school because every school needs them,” Rogers said.
Melissa was convinced that a student’s lack of winter attire was not always a matter of parental neglect, her mother said, but was often due to a lack of finances.
She said more than 80 percent of the students in the district receive free or reduced lunches, and many families just can’t afford some of the basic necessities.
“Sometimes coats get lost and mom and dad can’t always afford to go buy another one,” Rogers said. “I don’t think most people are truly aware of the need we have in our district.”
The family has requested that instead of flowers, donations for warm clothing be made to a memorial fund that has been setup through the Rindt-Erdman Funeral Home and USD 470.
Rogers said the response from the public has been overwhelming.
”I actually talked to the funeral home for the first time since the funeral,” she said on Monday. “They said we’d had an enormous outpouring, and that does my heart good.”
The funeral home also advised her to have someone take charge of the project to monitor and control distribution. She decided to place that responsibility with the school district and said Director of Curriculum Jeri Crumbliss was all for it.
“We’ve had a lot of people really excited about it,” Rogers said. “The school district was very supportive.”
The program is intended to benefit all grade levels in all local schools, including Sacred Heart Catholic School and Ark City Christian Academy.
Rogers said the project would be overseen by the teachers, who will make recommendations to school counselors.
“Nobody gets a voucher. Nobody gets to just show up for a free coat,” Rogers said.
Along with the coats, hats, and mittens that will be distributed to students, Rogers said a supply of those items would be kept at each school and designated for temporary use.
Some children have adequate winter clothing, but may have spent the night at grandmas and simply left their coat at home.
“Each school will see the immediate need,” she said. “They can see it up close and personal.”
Rogers said she is still struggling to make sense out of Melissa’s death. A friend suggested she find a way to make a miracle happen in someone else’s life. Rogers said she found a lot of truth in that statement.
“I can’t get her back,” Rogers said. “But if I can make some little kid go to school and be warm, if the child stays in school and gets an education that makes their life better, if that coat made a difference, that’s awesome.”