Kathy Barrans holds up her laptop as Mariana Riccio, who helped organize a coat drive for the Schenectady City Mission, looks on via Zoom during the drive. (Emily Benson photo)
Kathy Barrans holds up her laptop as Mariana Riccio, who helped organize a coat drive for the Schenectady City Mission, looks on via Zoom during the drive. (Emily Benson photo)

There is always a need for coats in upstate New York and one local teen decided to do something about it.

Mariana Riccio, a sophomore at Schalmont High School, organized a coat drive for the City Mission of Schenectady, helping to collect coats, hats, gloves and other warm, winter clothing. The drive was held from March 11-13 at her parish, Our Lady Queen of Peace in Schenectady.

“I just know that when the pandemic happened, how hard it was,” Riccio said. “I couldn’t imagine how hard it must have been for people who can’t get that kind of care.”

Riccio worked alongside her faith-formation teacher, Kathy Barrans, to bring the drive to life. There were so many donations collected over the three days that Barrans was worried about how they would transport everything. But between Barrans and Riccio’s parents, dozens of bags filled with warm clothing were donated to the City Mission.

Michael Saccocio, executive director/CEO of the City Mission of Schenectady, said that the coats were coming at “the perfect time.”

“(Early spring) is a really challenging time for winter gear because we run low on supplies at that time,” Saccocio said. “You know if you don’t have a coat and it’s still in the 20s or 30s, it’s not much consolation that it’s the middle of March.”

Saccocio estimated the City Mission will distribute around 1,000 winter coats to residents in Schenectady. In addition to the coats, people were invited to drop off written notes of encouragement for residents at the City Mission to help boost their spirits during the pandemic: “It was a great experience for us and we’re proud of the partnership,” Saccocio added.

“(Mariana) is inspiring to me,” Barrans said. “She wanted to do a service project and I wanted to encourage her to get involved in her faith and the church.”

Barrans first met Riccio last year in her faith-formation class, but when COVID-19 forced everything to shut down, the class stopped meeting in-person.

It was a dark time for everyone, but especially Barrans. “My mom passed away a year and half ago,” she said. Around the same time, her best friend also died. Not too much later, her father became sick. Barrans began thinking of leaving faith formation to take a break from everything going on.
Then last summer, Riccio sent Barrans a message: She wanted to tell her how much she loved her class, and that she had inspired her to connect with her faith. Barrans knew it was a sign.

“Because of her, I decided I’m not taking a year off,” Barrans said. “God was using me to get through to her.”

Riccio noted that Barrans would talk with the class about some of the struggles she was facing, like her friend’s death and family sickness. Hearing her stories helped Riccio to connect more with God, but also with Barrans.

“It was hard to connect with my faith and hard to connect with God,” Riccio said, “and hearing her story and how much motivation she had to grow her faith and help teens to connect with God, it really inspired me.”

Barrans said that it also helped her to “see the value in showing your struggle to others who might be struggling.”

In one of her classes, Barrans shared her story of sponsoring a child through Compassion International, a Christian child sponsorship ministry. Riccio was so inspired by her teacher, she decided to do the same and now sponsors a child in Columbia.

“Most kids in faith formation are there because they have to be, but … you can plant a seed in some of these kids and have an impact,” Barrans said.

After connecting in the summer, Riccio mentioned wanting to do something to help the community during the pandemic. That’s when the duo began working on the coat drive.

Then, just a few days prior to the drive, Riccio was exposed to COVID-19. It was a devastating blow to the teen. While she wasn’t sick, having to quarantine meant she was unable to attend the drive in person.

But Barrans wasn’t going to let that stop her: On the days of the drive, Barrans set up her laptop on the donation table where Riccio joined via a Zoom call. Every time a donation was brought in, she made sure to point to the screen, where Riccio was waving, and introduce the people to her student, saying: “This is Mariana! She helped organize the drive.”

Both Riccio and Barrans hope this isn’t the last community event they organize together: “We’re going to be a force to be reckoned with,” Barrans said.