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Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
Fitzgerald Petersen, right, is welcomed by Jim Upton at the St. Vincent DePaul Center recently as Petersen drops off a van full of coats, blankets and sweaters.

Ever since he was a young boy growing up in East Carbon, Fitzgerald Petersen has taken the time to volunteer.

"It's something that was expected of all the kids," he said.

It's a value that Petersen has passed on to his own children and also something that he continues to do today.

While Petersen was a University of Utah student, he volunteered at the St. Vincent DePaul Center, 427 W. 200 South. Today, Petersen is a captain with the Unified Fire Authority with 15 years experience under his belt. He also still volunteers.

Fourteen years ago, he started a project to collect coats and blankets to donate to St. Vincent. The first year he asked only co-workers for donations. Petersen soon found out, however, that firefighters also collected donations from neighbors.

Today, Petersen's project to collect coats and blankets for the homeless continues to be as strong as ever.

"The first year we got 200 to 300 coats. Now we're averaging 4,000 to 5,000 coats a year," he said.

The 2006 coat and blanket drive started recently. For the next six weeks, donations can be made at any UFA fire station. Petersen will make rounds to each fire station to collect those donations at various times and deliver them to St. Vincent.

"The goal is to take people's used coats and blankets. It's grown into people will buy new things," he said.

Coats donated as new are wrapped as Christmas presents before being given to the homeless.

Sometimes the public, in its effort to be generous, has donated a few unique gifts. One time, Petersen said someone donated a new electric blanket, something not extremely useful to a homeless person. But the donation was auctioned off, and the money raised went toward buying other supplies for the less fortunate.

During the winter following the 2002 Olympics, someone donated a couple of dozen brand new Olympic volunteer coats still in their original packaging.

"It was a wonderful gift donation," Petersen said.

The program has become such a success that St. Vincent actually uses the money it used to budget for coats for other needs.

"They have so much to worry about running the kitchen (to feed the homeless)," he said.

Petersen does not get paid for his annual effort, although the fire department allows him to use a van on his days off to make his coat roundup.

At the end of each winter, the center traditionally ends up with a surplus of coats. Over the years, the center has donated their extra coats to dozens of other agencies around the state and country.

But after each summer, many homeless people lose their coats and start with nothing again. With the cold weather, Petersen said, the center is in desperate need of donations.

Petersen admits there have been years that he's been so busy with school, family and work that he's thought about ending the coat drive. But he is sure now that it will continue for many years to come, even after he passes the duty on to another firefighter.

"I will make sure I will give it to a person with the same enthusiasm," he said, while also noting that because of the support for the project by all firefighters, "Finding someone will be easy."

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com