Late one night, as he struggled to fall asleep, Mack Stewart ’55 wondered what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
He had just been let go from his job managing The Middletown Press after failing to reverse the Connecticut paper’s economic woes. But as he pondered his future, he realized something: he didn’t really need a paycheck. After all, his home, and his children’s education were both paid for, and he was in his early 60s. His own financial needs, he realized, were fairly modest.
That’s when Stewart’s mind turned to Warm the Children, a nonprofit he’d started several years earlier to help buy winter clothing for young people in need, and he decided to devote the rest of his life to it.
“I thought, this program does a great deal of good for a lot of people who need help in the communities I’ve served,” Stewart recalls. “Maybe I can interest other newspaper publishers in embracing the program.”
That decision has enabled Warm the Children to expand and grow. Its almost 30 programs now raise $1 million each year, providing some 13,000 children with winter clothing and footwear. Each program’s money stays in the local community, and every dollar donated goes to buy clothing—something Stewart insists on anytime he helps launch a new program.
In many communities, a local newspaper runs the initiative, partnering with a civic group or charitable organization. In others, groups like Kiwanis or Rotary have taken over. But the goal is the same: to make sure children have the clothing they need to weather the winter months.
That’s the idea that led Stewart to start Warm the Children 30 years ago. At the time, he was working as a newspaper publisher in Torrington, Connecticut.
“I was driving to work one November, and I think it was the first snowfall of the year,” Stewart recalls. “I saw children waiting for the school bus, and they just didn’t have good winter clothing on at all. When I got to work that morning, I talked to one of my associates about how it’s really a shame that in a community like that, in the richest state in the country, we had children who couldn’t go to school with proper clothing.”
Stewart knew his newspaper could use its platform to publicize the need. The previous paper where he’d worked had had an initiative aimed at clothing children, and he realized he could build something similar in Torrington. And it worked—in the first year, the program raised $20,000.
“The community really responded,” Stewart says. “ It was really heartwarming.”
As Warm the Children has grown to include new programs in multiple states, Stewart has kept a simple recipe to ensure success. Newspapers publicize the need for donations and partner with a local nonprofit to ensure donations are tax-deductive. Schools and social service organizations identify families in need, and people in the community donate as they can. A total of about 2,000 volunteer shoppers (including Stewart and his wife, Natalie) meet families at local stores to buy clothing, and the stores bill Warm the Children.
These volunteer-run efforts serve a variety of people in need, Stewart says. Some are single parents trying to make ends meet. Others are scraping by on low-wage retail jobs. And still others are recent immigrants who are rebuilding their lives. On Stewart’s most recent shopping trip, he assisted a family who came to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo as they picked out clothing for their three children.
Now, three decades after he made that fateful late-night decision to dedicate himself to Warm the Children, Stewart continues to find his work deeply fulfilling.
“When the people who run a program tell me about their experiences serving children, and how it’s absolutely the best thing that ever happened to the community, that warms my heart, that’s my paycheck,” he says. “But it isn’t any bigger than the smile on the faces of a mother and her child when I take them shopping and that child has never had a new coat or a new pair of boots in their life. We get through and they say ‘thank you’ and give me a big hug. That feels good.
“That’s my own personal experience. But I know that it is happening in a lot of different places to a lot of different people every day. And that is very rewarding.”