What began as an under-the-radar program by Vernon Hills police to provide winter gear for veterans in need is expanding its reach to meet a growing demand.
Fans who attend football games Sept. 30 in Vernon Hills and Oct. 14 in Grayslake will be asked to bring coats and other winter clothing for veterans and their families.
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"Anytime you can bring real life situations into these games -- how you can help the community -- it's valuable for the kids," said Nick Goshe, head coach of the Grayslake Central football Rams.
About 3,000 or more fans are expected as the Rams take on the Grayslake North Knights game.
"We're supplying the gathering place. Our biggest part is getting the word out and getting the (collection) barrels out there and drawing a crowd," Goshe said.
At Vernon Hills High School, where the Cougars will play the Grant Bulldogs, the coat drive will include an added incentive for all third period classes.
"We're doing a competition within the school," explained Vernon Hills police detective Jeff Cielak, the school resource officer. "Whatever class donates the most coats will get a doughnut breakfast from the cops."
Vernon Hills police began collecting coats for veterans about five years ago. For the first few years, a resident who wanted to remain anonymous wrote a check to pay for about 125 coats, said Deputy Chief Jon Petrillo.
When the donor dropped out of the picture, police networked to raise the funds. But those, too, have been hard to come by and public support has taken on more importance.
Petrillo, an Army veteran who served as a Sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division, said he talked with Grayslake North coach Steve Wood and a cooperative effort was forged.
"I saw they were doing a coat drive and said, `Do you have a cause?' " Petrillo said.
The coats are distributed to veterans at the Stand Down, an annual gathering that offers flu shots, health care and dental screenings, employment and financial counseling and other services for veterans.
"Last year, the coats we got from Grayslake and Vernon Hills were gone within two hours," said Mike Peck, superintendent of the Veteran's Assistance Commission (VAC) of Lake County.
The target audience of the Stand Down are the 792 Lake County veterans registered for the Illinois Department of Human Services' Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program.
Peck says he categorizes veterans in this group as being at risk of becoming homeless, as many can't meet mortgage or rental payments. More than 300 are expected to participate on Oct. 18 this year.
There are other troubling indicators. The VAC had issued 2,390 food vouchers as of Aug. 31, compared to 1,350 at the same time last year and, about 5,050 vets had registered with the Illinois Department of Employment Security's skills match program compared to about 4,000 last year, according to Peck. About 39,000 veterans live in Lake County.
He said the commission has started buying debit cards for a local grocery store because the vouchers are too labor intensive.
"In all areas, the need is getting greater," Peck said.
New and gently used coats and new gloves also will be accepted any time until Oct. 14 at the Vernon Hills Police Department, 740 Lakeview Parkway, and the Grayslake Police Department, 10 S. Seymour Ave.