As Emilia Flores drove through her native Mexico several years ago, she spotted a stand-alone clothing rack under a bridge with a big sign asking passersby to either take or leave a free coat.

The clever charity display stuck in her mind, and she was surprised to also see it in a few other Mexican towns as she visited the country. Flores, a psychologist by trade, took the idea back home with her to Dallas, where she owns an eatery called Taco Stop that sells Mexican street-style tacos.

At Taco Stop, located close to downtown Dallas, a rack now stands outside topped by this sign: “Are you cold? Take one. Do you want to help? Leave one."

People can quietly and anonymously pick up a coat or leave one without having to talk to anyone — and countless Dallas-area residents have done so since she first put out the coat rack in 2015.

“I thought it was a wonderful idea, particularly since, when you need help, none of us likes to ask for help,” said Flores, 54.

Flores, a native of Durango, Mexico, moved to Texas in 1993 and worked as a psychologist for more than two decades. She opened Taco Stop, located in a former gas station, about eight years ago.

For both givers and receivers, the coat rack “empowers people to give them something to do to help, and it empowers people who want help but don’t want to go through the hassle,” she said.

The holiday-season ritual begins just before Thanksgiving and lasts through March. Flores estimates her coat rack probably has collected at least a few thousand coats in the past five years. She gets coats mostly for women and men, but there are some children’s coats, too, along with occasional hats, gloves and jackets.

The first year, mostly Taco Stop customers donated the coats — but now, since getting media exposure, many people including church groups make a special trip to Taco Stop with coats they don’t need anymore.

At Taco Stop — a to-go eatery that has no indoor dining — the roughly 6-foot-long coat rack stands outside in front of the business. When it rains, Flores moves the rack to a covered space, and when the rack gets full, extra coats are placed on the outside tabletops. Thankfully, she said, many generous coat donors come regularly and provide at least a few new coats a day; sometimes, she gets as many as 50 a day, and the coats go as fast as they come.

During the first year, someone stole all the coats, but that hasn’t happened again.

“There's always going to be someone trying to take advantage, but that's not on me, that's on them,” said Flores.

Dallas may be in the Sun Belt, but temperatures fall into the 30s and 40s some winter days, and sometimes the area gets hit with frigid ice storms. Flores said some people who grab coats from the rack are homeless, and others are struggling financially.

Flores said donating is easy — people just drop off coats — and the impact is immediate, especially on cold days.

“So many people have an unused coat,” she said. “It really, really warms my heart that people are willing to help, as far as doing something for someone else. I really call this ... compassion in action.”

Amy Hofland, 47, of Dallas, has been a longtime fan of Taco Stop and has donated many coats with her family. Hofland, director of the Crow Museum of Asian Art, met Flores through an international museum partnership.

When she heard about the coat rack at Taco Stop, Hofland immediately wanted to get involved. She and her family — husband Scott, and sons Baker, 13, and Edward, 12 — have donated several coats every year. Each winter, Hofland gathers coats from her museum colleagues and takes them to Taco Stop.

“It's a great way ... to be part of something bigger, and to feel like we're really making a difference in a human being's life,” Hofland said.

“As a repeat customer, I've noticed the coats are always changing; there's never a coat there for more than a day,” she said. “That tells me there's a desperate need."

To Flores, the coat rack represents something pure that helps people, regardless of their political beliefs, race, religion, nationality or any other potentially dividing trait.

“I also think that we live in such a polarized world right now — not only in the U.S., but everywhere,” Flores said. “At the end of the day, we’re all human and we try to take care of each other the best we can.”

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