Sisters Bring Back Popular Coat Drive At Sag Harbor Elementary

From left, senior Marina Hollyer, Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone, and Marina's younger sister, Nola Hollyer, with "Buddy the Cuddlemonster," which they created seven years ago for a coat drive at the elementary school that they're bringing back this year. MIKE HELLER

For the last seven years, sisters Marina and Nola Hollyer have been keeping a monster in their basement. Last week, they brought him to the Sag Harbor Elementary School, where he has been given a very important job.

Dubbed “Buddy the Cuddle Monster,” the large, refrigerator-sized box covered in bright blue fuzz is adorned with eyes, eyebrows, a nose, a heart — and, most importantly, a rectangular mouth big enough to stuff a winter coat inside.

On December 2, he began reprising the role he was originally created for, as a receptacle for the “Kids Need Warmth” coat drive that the sisters started when they were elementary school students in 2015.

Sisters Marina and Nola Hollyer in the first year they started a coat drive at Sag Harbor Elementary School seven years ago with their homemade donation box, dubbed “Buddy the Cuddlemonster.” DIANE GHIOTO

The coat drive benefits The Retreat, the East End-based group that provides shelter and support for victims of domestic violence and their families. This will mark the third year that the sisters are hosting the coat drive — they started it in 2014 and ran it the following year, and decided to bring it back in 2021, in what is Marina’s senior year and Nola’s sophomore year at Pierson High School.

The reason they chose to haul Buddy out of his basement home once again is simple, Marina said: “I think now, more than ever, it’s very needed, with COVID still going on.”

The sisters were only in second and fourth grade when they conceived of the idea to do a coat drive. Finding a big box to take to the school and stuff the coats in was a natural first step, but turning it into something more than a simple brown cardboard receptacle was an idea they figured would only help their cause, considering their target audience.

“We wanted something that would appeal to the kids at the elementary school,” Marina said. To create him, their mother, Diane Ghioto, sourced supplies from the Sag Harbor Variety Store. Naturally, the seven years spent in the basement meant that Buddy needed a bit of a makeover, so the sisters refurbished him before taking him back to the elementary school last week.

He will remain at the school until December 18, and the sisters say they have a big goal when it comes to how many coats they hope are “fed” to Buddy.

“Our goal is 500 coats,” Marina said. “The first year, we got 200, and I think we got 300 the year after. We’re aiming pretty high this year, so we’re hoping the community can come through.”

The sisters are seeking new or gently used winter coats.

The original impetus for the idea came when Nola — who, as a younger sister, was often the recipient of hand-me-down items from Marina — expressed to her mother that she wished she had someone to hand down her used clothing items to. Something like a winter coat, which doesn’t get as much wear and tear as a pair of leggings or a favorite T-shirt, but is essential nonetheless — and which can also be expensive — is the perfect item for passing on to someone in need, they said.

Giving back in that way feels particularly poignant this year, Nola said.

“Knowing that families have been so deeply impacted from COVID, it feels really fulfilling,” the sophomore said.

Ghioto said she was “thrilled” when Nola told her all those years ago that she wanted to give her gently used winter coats to someone who could use them.

“We have a lot of stuff that was outgrown and only worn a few times,” she said. “So we had this idea, but knew it had to be something that appealed to kids. We couldn’t just put a box in the school. It needed to be something that had personality.”

Marina and Nola are hoping they have to empty Buddy out many times to make room for more coats between now and December 18. They plan on folding the coats neatly and placing them in large black bags with big red bows around them before handing them over to people at The Retreat.

Ghioto said that on a recent visit to the school, she watched as several elementary school students expressed their delight at seeing Buddy in the lobby. For her part, she’s delighted to see her own children experience the satisfaction of doing good in their community, and she hopes it’s an idea that can catch on in other districts.

“It makes me excited that it sets the girls up for a lifetime of giving,” she said. “And being aware of what it feels like, and the satisfaction you get from giving to someone else.”