Students come up with an idea to keep the community warm
by Jessica Langdon
OLATHE — When a great idea strikes, you’re never too young to make it happen — and turn it into a huge success.
Just take the Give ’n’ Get at Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe, an exchange that provides free warm winter coats, hats and shoes to families in the community each January.
“There are so many people in our community who need our help,” said Jackson McElroy, a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and one of the organizers of the annual exchange. “And it’s not that hard to help them! We started Give ’n’ Get as eighth-graders. Anyone can do it!”
The same six friends who first formed the idea as middle schoolers over frozen yogurt at Peachwave have spearheaded the thriving and growing project each year throughout their high school careers.
People donate gently used items — including coats, hats, scarves, gloves, shoes and blankets — that they no longer need.
On the days of the exchange — Jan. 17-18 this year, at Prince of Peace — people from the community are invited to come select what they need.
“I have helped accomplish something very simple,” said Jordan Eberhardy, a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas and another of the organizers. “Giving people the opportunity to donate what they no longer need and take what they are struggling to acquire themselves has been a small and simple task that has had a huge impact on our community. I am so happy that I have had a small part in it.”
“There were people waiting for us to open the doors to come in,” said Joy Konnesky, mother of volunteer Jake Konnesky, a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas. “For the next two and a half hours, it was just family after family streaming in.”
By the end, very little was left to donate to TurnStyles thrift store, an outreach of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
“I love seeing those who need our items come and shop for them,” said Jackson. “They are very excited to receive their new size or style, and that makes me feel so good knowing that the Give ’n’ Get can help them.”
Fellow founder Jake Konnesky agreed.
“The most rewarding part of the project for me has to be the look on the kids’ faces when they find something that they really like and we get to tell them that they can have it for free,” he said.
“For example, this year, a little boy found a pair of basketball shoes and asked if he could have them.
“When we told him that he could have them, the smile on his face was amazing,” said Jake.
Jordan also found that kind of excitement from the kids.
“This year, a little boy came in and looked at me and exclaimed, ‘This is all for free?!’” said Jordan. “I told him it was, and his face lit up. It is a special thing to see people that happy because of something you have done.”
With all the founders now driving, the teens have been able to take a lot more responsibility on themselves, and this year went very smoothly, said Konnesky.
Technology has also helped them to stay organized and in touch.
Well ahead of the event, bags for donations went home with parishioners — with notes stapled to them to remind people about the opportunity to donate.
Media covering the project also alerted the community about it.
One moment that really touched Joy Konnesky was when a woman brought in some obviously well-cared-for shoes that had belonged to her late husband.
The woman couldn’t bring herself to part with them, she told volunteers, until she saw a story about the exchange.
“They had been shined and buffed,” said Konnesky. “All of us had chills.”
And they promised the treasured shoes would go to a good home.
“It was the best year,” said Konnesky. “We all felt good afterward.”
Each year, the same six — Jackson, Jake, Jordan, Bailey Ingolia, Brianna Woicke and Josh Lewis — have all come together to make this event happen, although, in recent years, members of the youth ministry program at Prince of Peace have also helped.
Now all seniors, the original group of organizers will pass the torch to a younger set — several have siblings who have grown up with this and will be taking over — and the youth group will continue to help.
“I hope they realize what a unique opportunity it is to give people exactly what they are needing at no cost,” said Jordan of the next generation of leaders. “And I hope they give their whole hearts to it because if they do, the Give ’n’ Get Coat and Shoe Exchange will continue to make people’s lives just a little bit better.”
“I’ll still come back and help out the weekend of the exchange, though!” promised Jackson.
Konnesky believes the project has helped instill a lifelong love of volunteering in her son and his friends.
“I have learned from the Give ’n’ Get that it is much more rewarding to give than to receive,” said Jake.