One woman inspired Coats for Kids founder

Don Rosen remembers the story as this year’s collection drive gets underway

Don Rosen, 91, still remembers the day more than 25 years ago that inspired him to start the annual Coats for Kids program.

Rosen, founder of Pilgrim Cleaners, was working in one of his stores when a woman came in with her son and asked if there was a used winter coat her son could have. He badly needed a coat, but she couldn’t afford one.

Coats for Kids founder Don Rosen and his daughter Bonnie Engler sit together in Rosen’s St. Louis Park home. (Photo by Jonathan Young)
Coats for Kids founder Don Rosen and his daughter Bonnie Engler sit together in Rosen’s St. Louis Park home. (Photo by Jonathan Young)

The scene wrenched Rosen’s heart, and he dug around until he found an old coat that was about the right size. When the boy tried it on, it fit. The woman broke down.

“She started crying,” Rosen said. “It was just exactly what she was looking for, and she needed it so badly.”

That wasn’t the only time Rosen had given a coat to someone in need. But that was the time that inspired him.

He decided to enlist the community’s help collecting coats that Pilgrim would clean and then distribute. He called the program Coats for Kids.

“The first year we collected so many coats, it was unbelievable,” Rosen said.

Pilgrim has run the Coats for Kids program each year since.

“We estimate that we have collected and cleaned more than 385,000 coats since 1986,” Rosen said.

When the program started, he had no idea it would continue as long as it did or grow as big as it did. But each year Pilgrim Cleaners still seeks to collect 10,000 coats.

“It sort of avalanched on us,” Rosen said. “It has been so graciously accepted by the public.”

Rosen views the program as one of the legacies he was able to leave.

His daughter Bonnie Engler, Pilgrim’s current president, said it’s a powerful legacy.

“My father has been a role model … because he always felt it was important to give back to your community,” she said. “He taught that to a lot of people throughout his life.”

The time has come for this year’s coat drive. Sun Newspapers, KARE 11, WCCO Radio and Subway are sponsors.

The program kicked off Sept. 17 and runs through Friday, Oct. 12. Pilgrim accepts new and gently used coats for children and adults. Coats can be dropped off at any of the 25 Pilgrim Cleaners locations or at the Sun Newspapers office at 33 2nd St. N.E., Osseo.

Community members can also send monetary gifts to the Coats for Kids fund, c/o Pilgrim Cleaners, 3217 85th Ave. N., Brooklyn Park 55443. One hundred percent of donations will go toward purchasing new children’s coats.

Schools are also encouraged to organize their own coat drives. The school that collects the most will win a Subway Party and a plaque for the school.