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Published: Monday, 12/8/2008

Collection drives aim to grant warm wishes in Toledo

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

For 15 years, people in need of warmth and compassion have benefitted from an annual blanket-collection drive known as Wrap Up Toledo.

It is all because a guy named Harlan Joelson didn't like what he saw one cold day in 1993.

Mr. Joelson, an employee of Team Sports on Merger Drive in South Toledo, recalled seeing a homeless man emerge from a refrigerator box. At the time, Mr. Joelson was 31 and pulling his vehicle into a downtown parking spot. The shivering man said to him: "Don't park near my house, will ya?"

That was Mr. Joelson's epiphany. Something about the image of that man emerging from a refrigerator box made a lasting impression on him.

Mr. Joelson responded by founding Wrap Up Toledo, thinking it would be a one-time deal. But people kept bringing him blankets each year after that.

To this day, he hasn't created a staff or sought a dime. Just blankets.

The collection begins each year on Thanksgiving and continues through St. Patrick's Day.

This year, there's a twist: One of Mr. Joelson's friends, Dan Kurz, president of HoneyBaked Ham, is launching a simultaneous campaign called Zip Up Toledo. Mr. Kurz will collect coats, hats, scarves, and gloves for the needy.

Drop-off locations will be the same for both blankets and all outerwear items with the hope that donors will bring both.

Drop-off sites are:

•Team Sports and HoneyBaked Ham, both in the 6100 block of Merger Drive. Merger is north of Airport Highway and accessible from Holland-Sylvania Road.

• Marsyls Restaurant, 2633 West Bancroft St., which is east of the University of Toledo's main campus.

•All city of Toledo police and fire stations.

Items are given to area soup kitchens, shelters, and service organizations that will distribute them to the needy.

"The biggest thing that surprises me is that it's self-sustaining. It's carried on year after year," Mr. Joelson said. "People come to expect it every year like the change of seasons. I don't have to tell them what Wrap Up Toledo is like anymore."

He said he's touched that donors never forgot him.

"Even with the state of the economy the way it is, I still feel our community is one of the most generous there is," he said.

Though they work at businesses next to one another, Mr. Kurz and Mr. Joelson met only when their children attended Christ The King School in West Toledo.

"Harlan is about as much of a gentleman with integrity as you can find," Mr. Kurz said.

He said Mr. Joelson has told him about the man he saw in 1993.

"It changed his life. It changed his perspective," Mr. Kurz said. "He could have just walked away, like most people do, and not do anything."

Mr. Joelson came from a family that worked many Sundays at the soup kitchen formerly operated by Historic Church of St. Patrick on Avondale Avenue.

He carried on the tradition with his own family, although that soup kitchen closed about 18 months ago.

Mr. Joelson has spearheaded other acts of kindness too.

Days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he collected a tractor-trailer's worth of supplies for cleanup and rescue crews at New York's World Trade Center.

And during one particular heat wave in August, 2005, he ran a collection drive for electric fans.

"He is so modest, which is also inspiring as well," Mr. Kurz said. "It's hard to find people like that anymore."

Mr. Joelson's efforts have rubbed off on his children, Trevor, 21, Cameron, 18, and Kenley, 14, each of whom has contributed hands to Wrap Up Toledo over the years.

Last year, during his junior year at the University of Louisville, Trevor Joelson created a similar program called Wrap Up Louisville. It became such a hit on campus that a video was produced.

"We basically took my dad's game plan and adapted that to the Louisville area," he said.

This year, Kenley Joelson created a blanket-collection drive at Sylvania Southview High School, where she was a freshman this fall.

Trevor said he grew up with the "innate" idea of community service, remembering how he helped his father collect blankets as a child and how friends would come over and jump in piles of them at his house before the blankets were distributed.

His father's dedication to the needy was "something I didn't realize until going to college," Trevor said.

"What it really did was set him up as an inspiration. He doesn't have the time for this, to be completely honest. But he's made it work. Now, when I go home, we're able to connect on a completely different level," he said.

Trevor, a senior and the University of Louisville's student athletic director this year, said he cherishes his last day of distributing blankets in 2007 as one of his best college memories.

It was early March. He and his friends still had 250 blankets to give away.

They pulled up to a homeless shelter and found a man who needed one. Then another. And another.

Before long, Trevor said, a long line had formed and they gave away all they had. Each person promised to put their blanket to use, many of them offering tales of how they would do that.

"That moment in time was just amazing," he said. "To see the hope the people get from this is incredible."

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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