PARIS— It’s vacation for students across Maine, a time for extra sleep, video games, friends and, well just about anything unrelated to school.
The pressure of submitting college applications and nervously biting fingernails; of spending every waking moment with friends whom in months will depart for out-of-state schools; of sports and grades.
All of these, for the moment, are absent from Sam O’Connor’s mind. It’s cold outside and he frets not about himself, but those he wants to help.
‘I’ve had a rough homelife too,’ O’Connor said.
For a period of time home life for the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School senior was tumultuous, and he moved from house to house. Now, finally stable, the amicable O’Connor is volunteering two hours every week at the Coat Room, finding winter clothing for the cold and needy individuals, couples, families, young and old.
He suspects some of those who come to the Coat Room, a free service for the areas needy, are homeless, and many rely on their generosity just to get by. He remembers a similar predicament himself.
O’Connor grew up living at home with his mother, who has an undisclosed mental illness. However, as he got older and her health deteriorated, he was forced to move out.
He moved into a small apartment with his father, with whom, O’Connor said, he didn’t always have the best relationship.
O’Connor slept on a cot in the one-bedroom apartment. The small confines made relations with his father complicated. After fighting with his father escalated, he looked for a way out.
He eventually approached OHCHS Spanish teacher David Knightly.
‘I eventually spoke with my Spanish teacher at the time and he told me he had an extra room in his house and he let me move in with him,’ O’Connor said.
‘It’s been great – life changing.’
Moving in with the Knightly’s provided stability he hadn’t known.
‘It’s an example of how someone who doens’t have much…can turn their life around,’ he said.
O’Connor’s made turning lives around his mission. While going through his ordeal he didn’t need the Coat Room’s goods, he understands that not everyone is so lucky.
Every year, seniors at the high school undertake a community service project, from building benches, to lending a free hand at nonprofits, to building memorials for fallen classmates.
After noticing a Coat Room advertisement in a newspaper seeking volunteers, O’Connor’s grandmother, whom he credits after he moved out from his father, contacted organizer Wendy Williams.
O’Connor, who nixed the idea of working on Roberts Farm, was hooked on the idea of volunteering for the community resource, which offers free, donated jackets, pants, hats and mittens.
‘I wanted to do something I wasn’t used to. It sounded like there was a lot I could do to help,’ he said.
Williams said that while the non-profit receives about 2,500 coats annually, only a third of those are for kids. O’Connor, she said, immediately wanted to correct that.
‘Sam’s been a huge asset,’ Williams said.
Today he’s at the Oxford Hill Chamber of Commerce at the behest of Executive Director John Williams, Wendy’s husband, hoping his story and the Coat Room’s mission will get people out on the snowy roads to donate badly needy childrens’ clothing.
After Williams learned O’Connor was looking to expand the community outreach, he sent an email to chamber members asking for donations and set up a time for him to meet with the public.
Support poured out. In a single day, businesses responded overwhelmingly Williams said, promising donations, while Channel 6 News announced they were going to cover the story.
O’Connor says he can repay the charity he received making a difference in other peoples’ lives. The football offensive lineman introduces himself a firm, friendly hand shake. He’s jokes easily, slightly nervous at all the attention Williams’ email has garnered.
The non-profit, one of several seasonal programs run by volunteer-organized RightStart, has been handing out coats to needy residents for over 20 years.
This year in particular has witnessed a dramatic spike in the demand for coats. As temperatures have plummeted and fuel prices soared, Wendy Williams said residents are relying on the coats more than ever.
There are no eligibility requirements and clients don’t need to provide any identification or fill out an application to take the goods. Clients are limited to one outfit per visit in order to maintain stock, which at times this year has run low.
The Coat Room is open every Wednesday from 2 to 4 p.m. through April. Donations can be made at Hannaford, Norway Cleaners, or the Coat Room, located next to the Ocean State Job lot along Route 26 in Oxford.
For more information about how to donate, contact Wendy Williams at 527-2351.