Katie Aguirre: Operation Warmth

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins December 15, 2015 21:40
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Katie Aguirre with sleeping bags donated to Operation Warmth

On Christmas Day 2008, Katie Aguirre was worried.

A snowstorm was coming that might force her to chain her car’s tires to get to her daughter’s Twain Harte home.

“Before I left home,” she recalls, “for some reason I thought, ‘I need to grab my sleeping bag.’ I don’t know why I was so bent on it. I couldn’t find it and was about to give up when I found it in a little storage shed outside.”

Aguirre drove from the West Point home she shared with her husband, Rafael, to the Starbucks in East Sonora, where it was already snowing. She bought a cup of coffee and thought more about the unpleasant prospect of chaining up.

Stepping outside, she saw a tall middle-aged man in a thin jacket; he looked cold. She got back in her car and started to drive past, then thought better of it and leaned out to wish him a merry Christmas.

“He slowly walked over and said, ‘You wouldn’t happen to have an old blanket, would you?’ I said no, but then realized I had something better.”

When she gave him the sleeping bag, “He started to cry and said, ‘You’ll never know how much this means to me.’ That was when I realized that for someone like him, this sleeping bag could make the difference between life and death.”

Over Christmas dinner in Twain Harte, she shared the encounter with her daughter Jenny Finney, son-in-law Anthony and their three children. “It seemed to bring home a real message about Christmas and helping others,” she says.

She has since collected and distributed some 500 sleeping bags and 200 tents to homeless men and women in Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador and Sacramento counties in an all-volunteer effort she calls Operation Warmth.

Aguirre, who leads a music program part-time for The Arc of Amador and Calaveras, a nonprofit serving the developmentally disabled, inherited what she calls “a heart for the homeless” from her father.

Cliff Blankenship had ridden the rails as a teen during the Great Depression and knew what it felt like to be cold and hungry. Throughout Katie’s childhood, he worked construction jobs that took the family of six from Florida to California.

“We kind of grew up on Route 66,” recalls Aguirre, now 59 and living in Ione. “We would see a lot of people broken down on the roads, in old cars trying to make it through the Mojave. My dad would always stop and try to help, and he instilled that in us.”

After Katie launched Operation Warmth, her brother, a Shasta County sheriff’s deputy, began to collect sleeping bags left at marijuana-eradication sites.

Her daughter Jenny has collected and distributed bags through her Twain Harte church.

Friend Jeff Gregorius, whose wife Karyn is Katie’s boss at Arc, donated a pickup truck load of sleeping bags as a “gift for his wife” one Christmas.

An 8-year-old Sacramento girl who heard about Katie’s efforts has begun to collect and distribute bags as well.

“Her heart is invested,” says Kayla Belle’s mother, Brooke Judd, who believes it will “become a habit that will stick with her for her whole life.”

Other supporters have donated hundreds more new and used bags, along with a number of tents. Aguirre delivers these in her travels throughout the Mother Lode and Sacramento.

She makes regular treks with friends to play music at homeless shelters, as she has done for more than two decades, and plays regionally with a folk band called Wind Horse, which recently helped raise funds for Butte Fire relief.

Aided by “so many wonderful people,” Aguirre plans to continue her volunteer work for as long as she can.

“It’s a constant and growing need, with many people just one paycheck away from being homeless,” Aguirre says. “Giving a homeless person a tent and sleeping bag is like giving them a house and a warm bed. There’s no better feeling.”

Where to donate bags, tents

Donate clean new or used sleeping bags and tents year-round to Operation Warmth at The Arc of Amador and Calaveras at its offices in Sutter Creek (75 Academy Drive, 209-267-5978) and San Andreas (153 Bellview Street, 209-754-4001).

In Tuolumne County, call Jenny Finney, (209) 586-5983.

Arrange to drop off bags and tents or to have them picked up by calling Katie Aguirre, (209) 267-5262.

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins December 15, 2015 21:40
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