Q&A: Jim Richards, manager of Mast General Store's Share the Warmth program

As general manager of Knoxville's Mast General Store, Richards oversees its Share the Warmth program, now through Nov. 30, which is co-sponsored by Columbia Sportswear and benefits the homeless. Visitors to Mast's Gay Street location are asked to bring coats, sweaters, and blankets that can be readily reused to the store.

Have you personally participated in Share the Warmth before?

Yes, this is the fifth year for the program at the Knoxville store, and I've been here for each one.

Have the needs changed from when you started?

I think they have, especially in the past couple years. In the beginning, we dealt more with men. Now we're seeing more women and youth, absolutely.

Are all the recipients homeless?

Yes, they're all people who have found themselves living out on the streets. Share the Warmth is a great way for Mast to be able to collect coats and other articles—mostly blankets—and get them to a distribution center to get them to the people who need them.

You won't distribute them?

We won't. We're a great mechanism for collection, and we do all we can to promote, collect, and package. But we don't have the ability to know those who are in need, so we rely on community partners. In Knoxville, that's the Knoxville Area Rescue Ministry.

How do people get their stuff to you?

Bring it here to the store. We'll take the donations to our basement, sort them into manageable loads, make sure they're clean and not tattered, then package them onto pallets for KARM to come in and take them to their distribution points.

What are some of the most popular coats?

We see a lot of fleece-type, but we get anything from jeans jackets to down jackets that are extremely warm and really designed for colder temperatures—and everything in between.

How many did you collect last year?

In the Knoxville store alone, something like 400-500. We obviously had some we were unable to use, but the majority are in really good condition, and most bring them in clean. Columbia Sportswear has worked with us the past five years and they donate several hundred brand new coats.

Do people need stuff for wet weather?

Absolutely—rain gear, warm blankets.

Are little kid coats important?

Little is especially important. More and more what we're seeing, there are entire families who are homeless. We're providing for infants up to the elderly.

And accessories, what do you mean by that?

Sweaters, toboggan-type hats, gloves, scarves—anything you would traditionally associate with keeping warm or dry.

Is there such a thing as a coat that's too warm to be of use?

No. Some people are very warm natured and can make it through a Knoxville winter in fleece, but some get cold really quickly. We'll take anything.

Nov. 30 is the last day?

We do this for the month of November, but we never refuse a coat or jacket in any month of the year. We'll gladly package it and hold onto it and bring it out for KARM next fall.

For more information: mastgeneral.com