PORTLAND — For the fifth year in a row, a group of local women spent a late-January Sunday making Deering Oaks Park a little more hospitable to those in need of warm clothing.

They decorated fences, benches and playground equipment with free winter gear, from warm hats and gloves, to scarves and socks.

The group, which includes residents from Portland, Westbrook and Old Orchard Beach, calls itself the Scarf Mob. On Jan. 27, they placed more than 650 clothing items around Deering Oaks for anyone who could use them.

Sarah Alexander of Portland on Monday said over the past five years the group has donated more than 5,000 items of winter clothing to those in need.

The idea first came to Alexander several years ago when she was watching a weather report on TV. She said forecasters were warning people to dress appropriately for the cold winter conditions and “I glanced over to my coat closet and realized I was guilty of hoarding extra scarves, hats and mittens.”

Alexander said she had more than a dozen unused items “just sitting in a basket, while (people) were literally freezing in my community. I reached out to a few friends and they’ve been supporting me and this event since Day 1.”

She said now schools, community groups and companies around Maine now regularly hold donation drives.

“I (also) receive donations from people that knit items every year, and donations from friends and loved ones as far away as upstate New York,” Alexander said. “The truth is we all have gently used, and sometimes new, winter items that we have outgrown, don’t like, or don’t need that just sit (around).”

The Scarf Mob started with just scarves, but has now grown to include winter hats, mittens, gloves, socks, coats, foot and hand warmers and even winter boots, Alexander said.

Each item is tagged with a note that says “I am not lost! If you need me, I am yours to keep you warm. Love, the #scarfmob!”

After the items are distributed, Alexander calls homeless shelters, teen centers, recovery homes, food banks and churches to let them know the Scarf Mob has struck again.

“This approach allows people to use what little money they have to keep food on the table or heat their homes,” she said. “A lot of parents only have the means to buy these items for their children and not themselves and for whatever reason they may not ask for help. The Scarf Mob provides a nontraditional outlet to easily (and anonymously) get what they need.”

What Alexander said she likes the most is that decorating the park “also sparks curiosity in children and gets their wheels turning (about issues like) giving back and paying it forward. It’s contagious.”

Allyson Woods, also of Portland, said other core members of the Scarf Mob include Michele Strout, Jean Nielsen, Kelly Willis and Carol Merrill.

She recalled one year when it had recently snowed and “and we were up to our knees trying to hang up items” in the park.

“Toward the tail end a woman and her child (came along) and Sarah and I both noticed that the young child was without a hat or proper fitting gloves and the mother was without a hat and scarf,” Woods said. “I then approached them to let them know (they could) help themselves to anything they saw that they liked. A few seconds later the little girl found a pink, three-piece hat, scarf and gloves matching Barbie set and she had the biggest smile on her face.

“Witnessing that experience was beyond humbling and I was happy knowing that all of our hard work paid off,” she said. “I hope that people walking through the park who are in need of items to keep them warm feel a sense of community and hopefully they don’t feel like they are alone.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Sarah Alexander of Portland, one of the founders of the Scarf Mob, spent part of Sunday, Jan. 27, decorating Deering Oaks Park with free winter gear from hats to socks and more.

The Scarf Mob wants people in need to feel free to take whatever winter gear they need.

On Jan. 27, for the fifth year in a row, the Scarf Mob decorated Deering Oaks Park with free clothing and accessories.

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