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A gift of warmth for Florida's homeless

For Charlie and Sammie Zipperer, it's  vital that the homeless get their own blankets. The sisters began distributing blankets to the homeless four years ago, an idea that grew out of their charity work.
Hard Times The Blanket Girls
Sharie Zipperer, right, helps a homeless woman pick out some clothing during her family's trip to Lions Park in Fort Myers, Fla.J Pat Carter / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

There was nothing exceptional about the blanket, really: No shiny, satin trim, no crocheted pattern, no waffled weave. It was just a plain, acrylic blanket, something plucked off a rack at a discount outlet.

And yet, the sight of it in the outstretched hands of a 12-year-old girl, so sweet and simple, startled the man.

"No, thank you, dear," he said, gently. His wife, standing beside him, looked down at the ground. "You see," the man went on, "we at least have our van to sleep in. I think you ought to give that blanket to someone who needs it more."

Indeed, the couple had a Chrysler Caravan. It was an older model, with dents and rust spots and sagging tires. In the rear was a heap of wrinkled clothes, a flashlight, a radio — and two children, no older than 3, bundled in sweaters.

Lost home to foreclosure
The van, parked at the gates to Lions Park, where this city's homeless tend to congregate, would be their home for the night — for many nights, perhaps, since they had lost their "other" home to foreclosure not a week earlier.

This home, though had no blankets — at least, none that Charlie Zipperer could see through the dirty windows.

"Don't worry," the sixth-grader said. "We have plenty of blankets. And it's going to get cold tonight, you know. My mom even said so." Temperatures, in fact, would dip into the 30s on one of the coldest nights of the year. And holding out the blanket again, she added: "Go on."

Reluctantly, the man accepted the gift. His fingers, dried and cracked, glided smoothly along the fabric, back and forth.

"C'mon," Charlie said to her 10-year-old sister, Sammie, who had been politely listening. "Let's get them some more."

Off they ran to their mother's minivan. They returned minutes later, out of breath, and handed a blanket to each child, then the mother.

For a moment, no one said anything. The mother just ran her hand over the blanket, again and again. It was soft, warm. And full size, too — big enough for her to wrap the little ones in twice.

Maybe this night wouldn't feel as cold.

Shivers down your back
It's possible for people in the Sunshine State to go a winter without glimpsing frost on early morning grass. It's easy to forget that even here, on Florida's southwestern coast, a night spent outdoors can send shivers down your back.

Which is why, for Charlie and Sammie Zipperer, it's so vital that even the homeless get their own blankets.

"Me and Sammie — we both have our favorite blanket," Charlie explains. Hers, she'll tell you, is a powdery pink, trimmed with satin, a comforter her mom gave her three years ago. "So, we figured, wouldn't everyone else need one, too?"

Says Sammie, who won't go to bed without a worn, ragged patchwork quilt that years ago belonged to her dad: "Yeah, this way, when everybody goes to sleep, they'll won't have any bad dreams."

The sisters began distributing blankets to the homeless four years ago. The idea, they say, grew out of charity work they did with their mother, Sharie, a volunteer in a project called Wake Up America that distributed leftover baked goods from a local supermarket to the homeless.

"Before we were helping other people help people, but now we were doing it ourselves. That's exciting!" Charlie says.

It soon became apparent that the girls had been bitten by the charity bug, says their mother, Sharie, 46, a secretary in a transport company. Now, "Whenever the girls see homeless people with the signs on the street corners, they clean out whatever's in my wallet to give to them."

Allowance money for blankets
Once the 2004 food drive ended, the girls began setting aside half of their allowance money each month for blankets. (The other half was already earmarked for Christmas gifts.) By Thanksgiving of that year, they'd saved enough to buy 150 fleece, twin-throws at Wal-Mart.

Each weekend they trekked through Lions Park and Centennial Park, doling out blankets to anyone in need. It didn't take long to exhaust their supply: Two weeks before Christmas, they had already run out of blankets.

The following year they bought 200. But even so, their stash had run dry long before the New Year arrived.

Determined to do better, the girls did extra chores around their house. They appealed to their teachers, their principal, the pastor of their church, New Life Assembly. (The church chipped in with 60 blankets, new and used.)

Next, they posted an ad, "Blankets for the Homeless," on the Internet at Craigslist:


That year, they collected 350 blankets.

And yet, that still wasn't enough to get them to Christmas.

As it happened, the winds of recession were already buffeting Lee County. Last winter, one in every 41 homes here were in foreclosure — the highest rate in a state that ranks among the top three in the nation in foreclosures.

At the local Salvation Army post and the Fort Myers Rescue Mission, record numbers of homeless families began turning up, seeking a bed for the night. At churches around town, soup lines were stretching longer and longer.

In the parks, the girls notice the difference, too.

Every week "there seems to be six or eight more homeless people in the park," says Sammie. That means that more often now, the girls must cut the blankets they collect in half, to meet the demand.

Another change: Just two years ago, most of the homeless in need of blankets tended to be "regulars" — individuals down on their luck, transients plagued by health issues, people with drug or alcohol problems.

Today, though, "there are more kids, mommies and daddies," Charlie says. What do the families say when she and her sister turn up with a free blanket? "Most of them get really embarrassed. ... They say 'God bless you,' but then they get sad, and don't like to talk too much."

'I'm afraid, dear'
In her 55 years, Mari Colontan — a wealthy woman from Brookline, Mass., and Sharie Zipperer's current boss — had never come face-to-face with a homeless person. But she had her ideas about them. "You hear things, see things on TV, that they're all bums, druggies, alcoholics," she says.

She'd always allowed the Zipperers to use her company's minibus, but then, one winter afternoon, Charlie and Sammie finally talked her into helping them distribute blankets in Lions Park.

On the ride over, Colontan seemed withdrawn, jittery. When they arrived and the girls and their mother climbed out, Colontan remained seated. Charlie climbed back inside.

"What's wrong?"

The woman looked away, ashamedly. "I'm afraid, dear. I don't know who those people are out there."

Charlie took her hand.

"Miss Mari, they're just like me and you." The child smiled, encouragingly. "C'mon, you'll see."

With that, Colontan emerged from the bus. In a short while, she was placing blankets in the hands of needy strangers, even stopping to chat with several homeless people, including a tanned, fit couple in their 30s — a "Barbie and Ken" pair who'd recently lost their jobs, their home.

As the sun came down, Colontan climbed back into the bus. Her eyes were red; she'd been crying. When Charlie saw this, she came over and hugged her.

"I had no idea, dear," Colontan said, sniffling. "Thank you. Thank you."