Red Stocking volunteers wrap up work with cheer

Keeping track is no easy chore.
Photo by Ralph Stewart

Keeping track is no easy chore.

All this week the basement of St. Augustine’s Church in Vineyard Haven has been filled with cheerful Christmas chaos. Red Stocking’s new headquarters for the first time, after years at Grace Episcopal Church, the big room is a busy sea of toys, boxes, wrapping paper. Long lists taped on walls enumerate children by number, (never by name, since confidentiality is strictly protected), ages, genders, and gift requests. Some 30 volunteers choose toys from piles, wrap them at long tables. Despite the hectic level of activity the atmosphere is filled with laughter and good will.

“It’s wonderful!” said Lorraine Clark about the church basement. “It’s big. We’re by ourselves. We’re not in anybody’s way!”

With Red Stocking week slightly earlier than some years, volunteers have been scrambling to fill lists submitted by parents. Tradition dictates that all children receive certain basic clothing, including socks, underwear, mittens, hats, then can ask for three needed larger items such as boots, winter coats, snowsuits. Volunteer shoppers head to local businesses, primarily Brickman’s and Basics, to fill these requests. Toy wishes are matched as closely as possible with donated toys.

As of Tuesday, the total number of applications received was approximately 300, down from last year’s 400. Although there is always an application cut-off date, some are often late. But soft-hearted volunteers invariably head out on last-minute shopping trips, doing their best to make sure no Island child goes without on Christmas morning.

Before this busy week got underway, Ms. Clark and Kerry Alley paused to reflect on their decades as co-chairmen of Red Stocking. They reminisced about some changes they have seen and challenges and rewards of the jobs they will soon leave behind.

Ms. Clark began with Red Stocking more than 30 years ago, assisting her friend Joan Merry who was chairman at the time.

“I just started to help Joan and it snowballed,” said Ms. Clark. “The word ‘no’ is not in my vocabulary.”

“Lorraine snagged me as soon as I retired,” said Mr. Alley, who came on board some 20 years ago, and also is no stranger to community service.

The biggest change is the increase in families and children,” said Mr. Alley. “Twenty years ago there were not even 300 children. Now we’re over 400.”

“With the increase in kids, everything else increases,” said Mr. Alley, explaining that when more children need to be served it requires more money, gifts, and volunteers.

“The biggest challenge for us was letting people know that Brazilians are not just foreigners who don’t deserve anything,” declared Ms. Clark adamantly. She and Mr. Alley recalled a few years ago when Red Stocking received some criticism for serving Brazilian families. The co-chairs wrote an impassioned essay, published in both Island papers, stating that Red Stocking’s mission is to care for any Island child in need.

“We made a very conscious decision that Brazilians are included,” said Mr. Alley.

Both said they received positive community response after the essay appeared. They added that they are lucky to have a Portuguese-speaking volunteer, Maria Mouzinho, to assist Brazilian families with applications and other aspects of the process, including the needs assessment to make certain they qualify.

Ms. Clark said that moving from Grace Church to St. Augustine’s is a major change, needed because it outgrew the space. She regrets that distribution will no longer take place in a church around the altar, but more space and adequate parking make the change worthwhile.

In past years volunteers set up shop in the parish hall, toys and gifts were piled throughout the building. Church staff lent a hand with parish administrator Pat Witte often answering phones and delivering messages.

“Red Stocking has eternal gratitude to Grace Church for all the years of putting up with us,” said Ms. Clark.

“The new electronic world” has caused a new problem, said Mr. Alley. A number of children request electronic items, but they are prohibitively expensive. He explained that since all toys are donated by the community, and it is never certain what will come in, the organization cannot honor these requests. The application now includes a note that Red Stocking does not give expensive electronics.

Despite the challenges both Ms. Clark and Mr. Alley said there have been positive changes, and that the work has been gratifying in many ways. Both expect to continue volunteering with the organization in years to come.

“A positive change is that we have more individuals and organizations ‘adopting’ a child,” said Mr. Alley. The person or group takes full responsibility for buying and wrapping everything on a given child’s list.

Both said the vast generosity of the community, from individual donors to school children, church groups, and organizations continues to touch them. They cited the Oak Bluffs Senior Center members who make quilts under direction of Glenna Barkan. Mary Marshall, Sarah Kurth, and Lorraine Hoggan who knit hats and other items, Shirley Robinson who pitches in on distribution day, and many more.

They said how grateful they are to WMVY for sponsoring the Chili and Chowder Contests, the Harley Riders for their yearly fund raising from local businesses under the leadership of Donald benDavid. “They see him coming, they take their checkbooks out,” Mr. Alley laughed.

Especially gratifying are the thank you notes, photos, and messages from Red Stocking recipients, said Mr. Alley. And best of all is when someone says, as one mother recently did, “I don’t need Red Stocking this year, but we want to sponsor a family and buy everything.”

Mr. Alley shared anonymously a note from one mother: “Your program has been a blessing and has brought much joy to my children’s faces and our lives….The volunteers and contributors of this program are God’s angels to all the children on Martha’s Vineyard. Bless you all!”

“The parents are so grateful because they don’t have anything,” added Ms. Clark. “There are people out there who really don’t have anything.”

“It’s been good! We deal with good people that need it, and good people that help,” she said, summing it up.

Experienced Red Stocking elves Leslie Frizzell and Susie Wallo will take on the co-chairmanship beginning next winter. Ms. Wallo began helping with Red Stocking about 26 years ago and brought her young daughter, Lizzie, along.

“I wanted Lizzie to have an understanding of Christmas that wasn’t about presents under the tree but about giving back,” recalled Ms. Wallo.

She stopped for a while but returned as a volunteer wrapper. But when dedicated treasurer Barbara Sylvia died suddenly a few years ago Ms. Wallo pitched in to handle the job.

Red Stocking receives some $60,000 in cash donations each year, nearly half from individual donors. The Chili Contest brought $32,000 this year, the Harley Riders $16,000.

“They’re shoes bigger than either of us could hope to start to fill,” she said of taking over for Ms. Clark and Mr. Alley. “But we have wonderful board and volunteers who will help us.”

Leslie Frizzell has volunteered for 11 years. She began with wrapping gifts, and then took over organizing and filling diaper requests. One year she realized she needed to turn to Red Stocking herself to fulfill her young daughter’s needs. Though hesitant to ask, she was grateful for the generosity she received.

Although Ms. Frizzell leads a busy work life as a caterer and high school tutor she helps with Red Stocking every year. She said she has worked with the Islands at-risk population through Vineyard Committee on Hunger and other programs.

“I don’t have a lot of money. I can’t donate hundreds of toys, but I can give my time,” she said.