Car dealers move school freebies downtown

Some 5,000 first- through fifth-graders from 17 city schools jammed Hall F at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Arch St. this morning to pick up free polyester pastel-colored made-in-China winter coats donated by the Auto Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia's nonprofit foundation.

School district buses drew up to meet news cameras, which was part of the idea: For the past four years the dealers distributed coats through selected schools; this year the operation was turned into a Center City field trip, for students from as far as Northeast Philly, for the convenience of the donors and to raise visibility.

The dealers collected around $500,000 to buy the coats (works out to about $16.50 apiece) through a $2 surcharge on Philadelphia Auto Show admissions. Other donors included Aramark, which provided free lunches, and the Teamsters, Carpenters and Laborers, who set up the hall for free.

The group is also giving another 25,000 coats to schools in more than 80 suburban districts, Kevin Mazzucola, who runs the dealers' association from an office in East Norriton Township, told me. The foundation also funds grants to Childrens' Hospital and other charities.

"They asked us to help figure out what children needed the coats," said Claudia Averette, deputy chief for the schools' Office of Parent, Family and Community Services and ex-chief of staff to ex-school superimtendent Paul Valas. Averrete's office selected the 17 schools and the grades targeted for free coats, concentrating on schools were many students qualify for government-subsidized lunches.

The district picked Alcorn, Allen, Duckrey, Emlen, Fulton, Kinsey, Lea, Longstreth, Nebinger, Pastorius, Sheppard, Stanton, Whittier, Wister, and the Blaine and Dunbar "Academic Plus" elementaries.  

The coats bear the labels of Operation Warm, a coats-for-the-poor charity founded in Philadelphia. Mazzucola says the program, dubbed "Drive Away the Cold," is popular among dealers.  "We thought, this is simple, being warm should not be a luxury. And the School District has had a couple of rough years," with state and city budget cuts, "they need a great relationship with the private sector."