It was the day after Christmas in 2008 and Robert Lohn was headed to Gottschalks at the Bayshore Mall to return his grandsons' presents, a pair of remote control helicopters he'd bought for $130.
"I wanted to play with them, that's why I bought them. They didn't have toys like that when I was growing up," the now 73 year old explained on a gray afternoon in mid-December. "But they were too cheap. They fell apart on Christmas Day."
So Lohn, not one to leave value on the table, was heading back to the department store to claim the helicopters defective and demand a refund to buy his grandsons something else. But while standing in the return line, he saw a rack of $40 kids coats marked down 70 percent in a post-Christmas sale. Having worked for years in the garment industry, Lohn was intrigued and gave the jackets a quick once over, finding them well made.
"I said, 'You mean I can buy these coats for about $12 apiece?" he recalled. "I decided right then I would spend my grandsons' toy money on buying coats for under-privileged children."
He wound up buying the whole rack — 20 coats in all — for about $240.
- Photo by Thadeus Greenson
- Robert Lohn pulls bags of coats from the back of his minivan
The following year, he helped get 159 new coats donated to local kids in need. In 2010, he started collecting donations of lightly used coats, as well, got a dozen or so businesses involved and distributed some 2,000 coats.
And thus Coats for the Cold was born. More than a decade later, Lohn's simple impulse purchase has grown into a massive annual volunteer effort that involves more than 20 schools, more than 80 local businesses and a host of volunteers. Together, they have purchased and distributed more than 5,000 new children's coats, as well as approximately 20,000 lightly used coats given to community resource centers and outreach services, from St. Vincent de Paul and the Eureka Rescue Mission to the Humboldt County Department of Human Services and North Coast Stand Down.
"What he's been doing is phenomenal," says Davena Bagnall, a French teacher at Arcata High School who both helps oversee the school's Interact program's Coats for the Cold collections and keeps a makeshift coat closet in her classroom where students in need can get a new coat for the winter. "Robert is just such a kind, loveable person. He's been able to connect with a lot of community members to make a lot happen for the kids in our community."
And Lohn's grandsons? Now 22 and 20 — the oldest helps with the effort annually and the other is in the U.S. Army — Lohn said they were fine with his giving away their Christmas money.
"They were cool with it," he said with a chuckle. "They're blessed. Not only are their parents educated and good wage earners, but they're on the good side of the street — the sunny side — no doubt about it."
As Lohn takes the Journal on his rounds in his late 1990s Toyota Sienna minivan checking donation bins around town in December, he explains how the now multi-pronged program works and his general philosophy on life.
Lohn moved to Humboldt County more than 30 years ago, following his daughter who came up in 1985 to attend Humboldt State University. Having grown up in Orange County's Huntington Beach back when it was mostly surrounded by strawberry fields and orange groves, Lohn says he's had a varied career. He's made surfboards and manufactured beach wear, from bikinis and board shorts to Hawaiian shirts. While helping to oversee a real estate development project in the late 1970s, Lohn says he got a piece of advice that stuck with him. His boss had asked him how he thought the project could turn a profit and Lohn replied he wasn't sure.
"Just move the decimal point," Lohn recalls the boss replying. It was a piece of advice that resonated, Lohn says, and he was soon looking to squeeze out value wherever he could.
That led to his next endeavor in the early 1980s. He says he'd purchase old white oak whiskey barrels for about $8 a piece and take them to a maquiladora factory in Baja California, where he'd cut them up, add brass touches, and make them into wood signs, toys and bathroom accessories — the kind of stuff you'd find at Restoration Hardware. (Lohn says at a garage sale he recently stumbled upon an old towel rack from his factory still in the original packaging. "He wanted $3 for it and I gave him $1," he says.)
Business was good, he says, but he was on the road too much, so he decided to join his daughter up in Humboldt County. He didn't take to the place at first, and planned to be here no more than a year before he moved on to his next thing. But the place sunk claws into him and one day on the golf course he says he was offered a part-time sales job that would allow him to make a living while playing as much golf as he wanted. He took it.
- Photo by Thadeus Greenson
- Robert Lohn with a garbage bag full of donated coats picked up from the North Coast Co-op in Eureka
Lohn pulls his gray minivan into the Eureka North Coast Co-op parking lot, grabs a commercial-sized garbage bag from the back and heads inside to where the store has a Coats for the Cold donation box near the registers. The boxes cost about $5 each, Lohn says, but last for at least a few years. He looks into the bin to find a few small garbage bags stuffed with lightly used coats and plops them into his bag. At the bottom of the bin there's a sleeping bag, which he also happily accepts — "We take anything that will keep someone warm," he says.
With that, he heads back to his van with a slow shuffle, a large, gray garbage bag slung over his shoulder — a kind of makeshift Santa clad in a plaid shirt, khaki pants and brown loafers.
Back in the van heading toward the Adorni Center, Lohn says he puts about 4,000 miles on his van every winter driving around Humboldt from Garberville to Orick, from the coast out to Hoopa and Bridgeville to collect donations and drop off coats. Thankfully, he says a driver with Fed-Ex recently called, offering to take over deliveries to those outlying areas, saying they fall along the company's routes anyway.
On his way into the Adorni Center, Lohn says he doesn't make his big push for donations until after Christmas because he doesn't want to compete with Toys for Tots, adding that he gives about 150 new coats a year to the nonprofit to distribute. Peering into the Adorni Center bin, he's disappointed there isn't much there, though he does smile broadly pulling out two identical size 4T floral patterned navy blue coats with matching pants and stuffing them into his sack. (He says he loves when he finds duplicates because it shows someone bought the jackets specifically for Coats for the Cold.)
Walking back to Waterfront Drive, where he parked in the shadow of the Carson Mansion, Lohn stuffs the garbage bag into the back of his minivan from which he's removed two rows of seats to make room for the constant pickups. There's just so much need and so much generosity, he says.
He's not wrong. In addition to having one of the largest per-capita homeless populations in the nation, about 21 percent of Humboldt County households live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census, meaning they bring in less than $13,000 for a single adult or less than $26,00 for a family of four. Sixty percent of local children qualify for free and reduced lunches at local schools, according to Food for People.
"Do you know over a half million people are homeless every day and it shouldn't be that way in a country like this, with so many assets and whatnot," Lohn says. "People shouldn't be going hungry."
The problem, he says, is life has just gotten so expensive, especially real estate. He notes he rented his first house in Huntington Beach for $85 a month and his first mortgage was $24,500. With a 7.25 percent interest rate, he made $159 monthly payments. As his van pulls into Pacific Outfitters' parking lot, he turns the conversation seamlessly to Coats for the Cold and how it adds "value to the dollar."
- Photo by Thadeus Greenson
- Volunteers sort hundreds of donated coats.
It goes like this, he says. Businesses agree to give up some floor space to put out donation bins. Folks then donate their lightly used coats, which keeps them out of the landfills (as an aside, he notes that textiles are one of the biggest contributors to landfills in the United States, which checks out, as 11.2 million tons of the stuff went to landfills in 2017, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). The coats are then sorted by volunteers before they're sent to Mission Linen, which washes them free of charge. (Mission Linen Production Manger Kyle Gaylord says washing several thousand pounds of laundry annually for Coats for the Cold is an easy way to give back. Plus, he says, "I couldn't see Robert Lohn down there at the coin-op.")
From there, another swarm of volunteers re-sorts the coats and gets them out to resource centers and outreach organizations, where they're put on the backs of people who need them.
But that's really only half of it, Lohn says. In addition to the coats, Lohn says local schools have also started change drives to raise money that's used to purchase new coats, which go almost entirely to local kids in need through First 5 Humboldt, local schools and shelters. Lohn says he got the idea from the old March of Dimes fundraisers and bought some old mail tubes and slapped some Coats for the Cold stickers on them. But instead of a dime-sized hole, Lohn says he cut large circles into the tops, making sure if someone wanted to put a wad of bills in there, they'd be able to. Getting classrooms throughout the county to collect change and donations was one thing but then Lohn figured a way to leverage that into more. He paired schools with local businesses willing to match their collections up to $500. Bagnall, the Arcata High French teacher, says they try to have the students who collect the money go out and purchase the coats to donate.
"It's a win-win," says Stanley Elcock of the Rotary Club of Arcata, who helps oversee the Interact program.
"Just move the decimal point," Lohn says, adding that Scrappers Edge and Times Printing also print all of Coats for the Cold's brochures, pamphlets and stickers free of charge, while Rainbow Self Storage donates a large unit for a few months a year to the cause. "I don't want to sound like a ballad for the businesses but, without them, we wouldn't be able to do this."
And perhaps Lohn's biggest point of pride, he says, is Coats for the Cold has been able to give out so many coats to keep so many warm with virtually no overhead costs, other than fuel for his car, a bit of maintenance here and there, and the occasional donation box or coin collection tube.
"The only thing that's really killing us is the cost of gasoline," he says, adding that will soon improve with Fed Ex on board to help.
Moments after Lohn pulls up to his unit at Rainbow Self Storage and begins unloading eight or so of the commercial trash bags filled with donations, adding them to another couple dozen already in the unit, a van pulls up from St. Vincent de Paul. Out bounds Marylee Price, who runs the facility's free meal program. With her is Brian Olson, who works for St. Joseph Hospital running its Eureka Community Resource Center, which is located at St. Vincent de Paul and connects people there with services, gives them a mailing address and offers items from the clothing closet. The two are there to sort coats and bring some clean ones back to the clothing closet.
"This man's kept a lot of our people warm over the years," Price says. "And they're coming in every day now, wet and cold."
Homeless people can go through a lot of clothes, Price says, as they can only store so much stuff and outer layers tend to get wet and dirty. The resource center gives laundry vouchers but those only go so far.
"This is really critical in getting us the quantity we need to get through the season," she says.
Once Price and Olson finish up, a van arrives from Redwood Adult and Teen Challenge, and Lisa Sill, Andrea Varty and Misty Gavi hop out to join the sorting effort. They work together, piling new coats on a series of tables, bagging up clothes to be laundered and setting aside those that can't be, like leathers and wools. As they work, they talk about what a gift a new coat can be to a kid in need as Humboldt's weather turns frosty.
Lohn chimes in.
"It's not just going to keep them warm," he says. "It also gives them a sense of pride. The shirt might not be great. The pants might be old and the shoes may be worn, but it's all covered with a nice, brand-new coat."
About an hour later, the clothes are sorted and Lohn's back on the road toward Eureka. He's had a good life, he says.
"I'm going on 74 and when you get to be 74, you won't do half of what you do at 40 — it's pretty much downhill after 28, in my opinion," he says. "But I can still walk 18 holes and carry my bag. My emphasis now is, who's going to take over? Where am I going to find another idiot who's going to put in the 600 to 700 hours a year into this? Who's going to take over?"
He pauses a moment.
"I used to worry my money would run out, then I started to worry about getting Alzheimer's. Now, the only thing I really worry about is who's going to keep this going because there's just so much need for it and it just makes so much common sense."
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor and prefers he/him pronouns. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.