She helps thousands of North Carolina kids stay warm in the winter with coats and gloves

Contributed photo

When Phyllis Parish watched the local news as a kid, she had no idea she would one day work for WRAL. Along with her role as director of local production, she leads one of the news station’s biggest fundraisers, Coats for the Children, which is celebrating 30 years of providing coats, hats and gloves to thousands of families. Parish, who plans to retire in March, shares how the campaign has changed over the years.

Q: When did you first realize you had an interest in broadcasting?

A: I grew up in Wendell, and my parents always watched WRAL-TV. I was fascinated and thought one day I might like to work in that field. In high school, I reached out to Bobbie Battista, who was our co-anchor at the time with Charlie Gaddy, and she was kind enough to grant me an interview and show me around.

Q: How did you land a job at WRAL 36 years ago?

A: I went to Barton College in Wilson and majored in English. After graduating I moved to Raleigh and started working at the NBC affiliate WPTF-TV 28. I worked there a little less than two years and got a job offer from WRAL and have been here ever since.

Q: What’s made you stay so long?

A: It’s a real family here. It’s such rewarding work for me. I really feel honored to do outreach projects with my team like Coats for the Children, Backpack Buddies with the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, “Brain Game” and “Education Matters.”

Q: How did Coats for the Children get started?

A: Our general manager at the time, Fred Barber, was a big volunteer at the Salvation Army. He launched the idea of a campaign to support the Salvation Army and families in need. I was not the main producer when it launched, but I helped behind the scenes. I’ve been the project manager for 28 years.

Q: Coats for the Children runs through the end of December, but the daylong telethon airs Dec. 14 this year. What does it take to put on this event?

A: There are many moving parts, many details to organize — from scriptwriting, preparing graphics, producing promos for the campaign, scheduling interviews, monetary check presentations and prepping our anchors to the current needs the Salvation Army is supporting. This station project definitely takes a team, and every department at WRAL is represented. I love watching the enthusiasm build as we approach telethon day.

Q: How many people across the state does this campaign serve?

A: Last year was the most we’d ever raised for coats and that was $183,000 — money on telethon day and online. I’m hoping we can beat that this year. We typically collect about 6,000 coats and a few hundred toys. About six years ago, the Salvation Army let us know it was struggling to keep its toy closet filled during the holiday season so that’s a newer element we’re trying to grow.

Q: How has the event changed over the past 30 years?

A: It started with about a dozen phones; we were asking our viewers to understand a need in their local community and to help us raise money to help those folks. Thirty years later that’s still the goal, but it’s grown. We have anywhere from 20 to 25 phones each year. One of the biggest changes is online giving. It’s a much easier way for viewers and people in the community to donate.

Q: What’s surprised you the most?

A: Our viewers’ generosity. When our anchors talk about the 15,000 boys and girls not having a warm winter coat as they stand at the bus stop on cold mornings, our viewers respond. The phones start ringing with significant pledges, and it warms every heart in the studio. With the two recent devastating hurricanes, we know a lot of families are struggling. More than ever, there’s a need this year for winter clothing and new toys to help families.

Q: What do you love about your job?

A: I love helping people. My parents taught me and my sister about giving back. We delivered Meals on Wheels with our mom and were always involved at our church. We knew there were less fortunate families; that lesson stuck with me.

Know someone who would make a good Tar Heel of the Week? Send nominations to tarheel@newsobserver.com.

Phyllis Parish — Tar Heel of the Week

Born: May 15, 1957, in Wilson

Residence: Raleigh

Family: Married; one grown daughter

Education: Studied English at Barton College

Awards: Winner of seven Midsouth Emmy awards

To donate to Coats for the Children: Go online to www.wral.com, or drop off items at local Jiffy Lube locations