When art historian Dr. Erica James was heading off to college, the girl from humble beginnings had enough funds to pay for her first semester’s tuition and room and board, but nothing else. The young lady who was headed off to upstate New York could not even afford to purchase a winter coat. As she was readying to leave, someone who understood her need and circumstances purchased a winter coat for the young James as a gift. So, when she heard about the Coats for College concept, which allows people to repurpose their winter coats in a philanthropic way to help future Bahamian scholars stay warm and reduce a major expense, that resonated with James in a personal way.
“I was able to relate in a direct way to the call because I understood the importance of extending the kindness that was extended to me, to others in similar circumstances,” said James.
She has been participating in the initiative since it began in 2017.
“It was a no-brainer,” said James. “I think God would have slapped me in some way if I had decided not to participate, considering the blessings I have received.”
The Coats for College concept, founded by Monique Hinsey, encourages the college/university graduate to donate warm coats they acquired over the years, which would in turn be donated to young Bahamian students in need being afforded scholarships to pursue a college education abroad in North America and Canada through the Public School Scholars Programme (PSSP).
“They have overcome many hardships – homelessness, hunger, lack of access to clean running water, and domestic abuse – without the scholarship program, most would never have the opportunity to achieve their scholastic dreams. But now, the fantasy of receiving a college education can be a reality, and they are leaving our warm and sunny climate to study in a wintery wonderland. These young scholars will need warm coats – but coats can be expensive, and with all they’ve had to endure to achieve a scholarship, most cannot afford a coat to stay warm. That’s why Coats for College was created – to alleviate one of the many expenses our scholars will incur in college. With Coats for College, we provide a way for former students to repurpose their coats in a philanthropic way,” said Hinsey.
College bound students who have been the recipient of a donated James coat have been surprised to find a little something extra tucked into their coat. Since her first year donating winter coats, James has placed a note with each coat she donates. And it’s done very purposefully.
“A lot of young Bahamians work hard out of an internal drive, often without a lot of support and encouragement. It is hard to imagine what young people face when they have dreams, and they all have dreams, but often not a lot of road maps, mentors or examples of people close to them who can provide advice, encouragement … hope.
“Just speaking from my own experience. My mother was a ‘dry-eyed’ person. Because she only had girls and she realized that she had made a mistake by not continuing her education, she always insisted that my sisters and I do our best in school and attend college. We literally had to be in a coma to miss a day of school.”
James said her mother did not have to work too hard to convince her, though. She said it was something she wanted for herself as well, but that her mom was honest and could not tell James how to apply for college or anything because she did not know. But James said her mom knew she would figure it out. And she did.
“I had to learn to do everything on my own including getting the funds to go. So, I understand feeling one’s way towards something that seems impossible; moving forward on hope, faith and being plenty scared. Feeling inadequate in some ways but walking anyway.
“That’s a long way to say I included the note to ground the gift in a real story. I wanted the young women that received the coats to understand where the gift came from and that it was given with a pure heart by someone who was once in the exact same position as they are now, who made it through and is now rooting for them.”
James said Hinsey’s vision has encouraged her to work on establishing a foundation to help teens who are leaving The Bahamas for college, in different ways. But she’s thankful that right now she’s in a position to give coats, purchase dorm supplies and books, or a plane ticket or two.
“I can provide seemingly little things that really stressed me out when I was in their position. [The foundation] will be called The Walk Like a Giant Foundation. The name comes from my grandfather who loved quiet but unfortunately for him, I went to live with him when I was seven and I had a tendency to run everywhere. Though I was as skinny as they come [back then], my steps were loud on his wooden floors. You heard me coming long before you saw me. Exasperated, he would always exclaim when I disturbed his peace ‘Gal – you walk like a giant!’. As I got older, I took it on as a kind of mantra that though small, I could have an impact on the world. I also came to understand that though an act or gesture may seem small to many, it can have a giant impact on someone’s life.”
Last year, in anticipation of the drive, James sent five more coats home, and took it a step further, completing the ensemble with matching hats, scarves, gloves, and a sweater or sweater dress – some of which were cashmere.
As she looks back at the program, James is uncertain how many coats she has donated to the initiative.
Raven Dames, 20, was not one of the lucky ones that received a coat donated by James with the note attached, but she said being the recipient of a coat in 2017, meant everything to her and that she made use of it for the full four years of her undergraduate studies.
“I still remember the first time I stepped foot on my campus ever [at age 16] – I was wearing that coat. The pictures are lost to me now, but the memories are all the same. I stood in front of my school sign with my grandmother [Rose Richards] and I felt her pride. That gifted coat will forever be part of the feeling that I was doing something right,” said Dames.
“At the time, I hadn’t any true idea of how cold it truly got in Minnesota,” said the College of Saint Benedict graduate with a degree in psychology. “I underestimated the extreme climate and my ability to adapt. The coat I received was the perfect fall jacket for the dropping temperatures leading into the winters that got even colder.”
Dames said when she received her scholarship, it occurred briefly to her that she would need a proper winter wardrobe, but that it was not one of her top priorities.
“I didn’t know how early cold fell on the state and the only jacket I had with me was the one I received from Coats for College. Having the right clothes for any climate impacts more than you’d think it would. If you’re too cold or too hot, you cannot devote your full energy and attention to learning all you can and fully participating in activities and experiences.”
And she has plans to pay it forward.
“I promised myself when I get into a position where I can afford to do the same, I will, especially for Bahamian students going into colder climate states. It is easy to underestimate just how much protection against the cold you will need, and the cost.”
D’Havian Scott, 21, was a coat recipient in her first year and said she thought the initiative was an excellent one, particularly for a person who had never been in a climate that warranted more than a hoodie.
“It is the most thoughtful program. It really shows that they not only care about our educational well-being, but also how we are adjusting to the climate. In my first year, alone, I had to deal with [below zero] temps. They say after you acclimate to the weather, but it’s always freezing to me, so having that coat was such a lifesaver.”
Scott said after being accepted into college, she thought only of getting there, and said clothes were the least of her worries.
“So, when it was time to prep and I looked at how cold it got [in Minnesota], I honestly didn’t know how I would survive. It was sweet and thoughtful that not only did the program [PSSP] help us to get to college, but on top of that, they made sure we had gear, so that we could take care of ourselves.”
While she was also not the recipient of an Erica James coat, the sociology with a concentration in anthropology and minor in psychology major has already paid the kindness forward. After a couple of years, she donated the leather coat she had received to Catholic charities, along with other winter clothes she had outgrown, to be distributed to families in need of winter clothes.
“It was super nice to know that the coat that kept me warm was now doing the same for a family in need. I also tried to help new scholars at my school to find proper gear, or even pass on boots or any other garments that I no longer need.”
People can donate gently used or new items at the Ministry of Education scholarship building opposite Ebenezer Methodist Church on Shirley Street.
You are about to fulfill a dream. Everything is coming together to make it happen. Be thankful. Be excited. Get all the feels. Walk on and through the lingering fears. Your dream is about to become your reality and you will be amazing.
Many years ago, I was just like you. From a working-class Bahamian family…I barely had enough money to pay for half of the first year of college. I had faith and courage (can’t tell you how many times I recited Joshua 1:9 whenever I felt doubt and insecurities creeping in!), but I didn’t have any money for a coat and I was heading into a deep upstate NY winter.
At the time, I had a boyfriend who worked at McDonald’s trying to save the money he earned to go to college. The week before I left for school, he brought me a big box. In it was a purple wool coat I had seen in a shop that no longer exists on Bay Street. He had taken a bit of his college savings to buy me a coat. To this day, it remains one of the most meaningful gifts I have ever received.
When Mrs. Hinsey made the call, I thought about that blessing and knew I had to make sure that his blessing to me was extended to you. I hope this coat keeps you warm. I hope you look fabulous wearing it. Know that it is given freely and wrapped in it is a sincere wish that you do your very best in college; enjoy this experience; make new dreams and be a positive presence in your school, your community, your country.
And just in case you are wondering – my boyfriend got to go to school that year, too. He eventually became a pediatrician and a friend.
Wishing you all good things. – Erica Moiah James, PhD.