Fifteen years is a long time and a lot of coats for Nancy Schaper and her band of 50 faithful volunteers.

As three of them sorted through the latest round of donations to the Coats of Many Colors drive Monday at the Columbia County Fairgrounds in Portage, Schaper, the coordinator, estimated they’ve distributed about 50,000 winter items since 2005.

“A lot of people don’t have a clue how generous this community is,” Schaper said of a total that amounts to more than four times the current population of Portage.

Last year, they collected and distributed more than 4,000 items, the most ever for an event that grows each year, she said. Distribution is expected to exceed those numbers yet again Oct. 25-26 due to new donations and volunteers.

“We’re off to a good start,” Schaper said of a collection that started Oct. 1 and concludes Oct. 20. Volunteers have so far collected well over 20 boxes and bags of winter items, she guessed — “and they’re heavy because I lugged them all,” she said.

Schaper, aided Monday by volunteers Peri Mills and Denise Cada, recalled the various items volunteers have found in coat pockets through the years: Nuts and bolts, keys, candy wrappers, receipts, Kleenex, packs of cigarettes and, every so often, a little bit of money.

“Pretty much anything you could think of,” Schaper said of pocket surprises. Donors are asked to first clean their items before dropping them off at donation sites.

For the 15th coat drive sponsored by the Salvation Army in Columbia County, Schaper seeks children’s snowpants and boots. Children’s winter wear, in general, always is appreciated.

“We don’t want anybody thinking that this is enough,” Schaper said of the group’s good start. “The need is so great, but sometimes I worry that we don’t get the word out enough.”

She thinks that not even half of the locals in need of winter items will show up to distribution. Sometimes that’s due to a lack of awareness, but Schaper and her volunteers say they worry others might be embarrassed.

“We want people to realize it’s for anybody,” said Cada, who’s in her first year volunteering alongside Schaper but has helped out with winter item donations at her Portage church, CrossPoint Assembly of God. She also serves on the local Salvation Army board.

Cada gestured to the donated items already hanging on the coat racks for distribution, many of them brand new and sporting tags. “If they’re in bad shape, they get thrown out,” Cada said. “I hope people know that.”

Mills has worked alongside Schaper in the coat drive since retiring about five years ago from the information technology department at Madison Area Technical College’s main campus, where she worked for 33 years.

“When you’re no longer immersed in your work life or your family, that’s the time to start doing other things,” Mills said of volunteering. “I knew Nancy would be my avenue for that.”

Schaper’s passion for helping the community, Mills said, is “contagious.”

“She may have just recruited my sister,” Mills added with a laugh. “I help out with whatever she needs. She’s always looking out for the community. It’s impressive.”

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau or contact him at 608-695-4956.

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