Despite a dramatic upsurge in applications, Red Stocking organizers expressed confidence this week that they would be able to meet Christmas requests. A prompt and generous community response to a last-minute appeal for more toys to meet the increased need guaranteed that no child will go without gifts. But with the list greater by more than 50 children when compared to the numbers served in the last few years, Red Stocking workers are concerned about having funds to cover the springtime gift certificates for food traditionally provided to all Red Stocking recipients.
Veteran co-chairmen Kerry Alley and Lorraine Clark said they could not say for sure why the number of children rose to 328 from 275 last year, which was an average year for children and families served. But they and other Red Stocking volunteers say they believe the volatile economy - with its high cost of housing, fuel, food, and other essentials - affected the level of need. Mr. Alley said the organization saw a number of families who had received Red Stocking help in the past, then gone off the list for a few years, filing applications again this season, suggesting that growing economic challenges may have been too much for those who were just getting by.
"People don't have money, rents are so expensive, people are not making the money they need to support their children," said Ms. Clark.
On Tuesday, Mr. Alley and Ms. Clark took a short break from their busy day overseeing gift-wrapping at Grace Episcopal Church parish hall in Vineyard Haven to talk with The Times. They said the most striking change in Red Stocking demographics is the large number of infants and toddlers on this year's list. According to Mr. Alley, children from infancy through age three constitute 60 percent of the list, noticeably higher than usual. In 2006, this younger age group accounted for 46 percent, and although earlier figures were not immediately available, Mr. Alley said that that portion of the children served was also lower in previous years.
Although statistics have shown the number of school children dropping on the Island, Red Stocking sources point out that most of their recipients, at least this year, are in a younger group.
Martha's Vineyard Hospital records show a significant rise in births there over the past five years, which may bear out the theory that an increase in babies is helping push up Red Stocking applications. Joyce Capobianco, RN, manager of the maternity department, said 137 babies were born there in 2003 and 131 in 2004. The year 2005 saw a jump to 151 infants and 156 in 2006. Although this year's statistics are not complete, Ms. Capobianco predicted a high of 170 to 180 hospital births for 2007. Birth figures for the years previous to 2003 were not available at press time.
Mr. Alley said it is not possible to describe Red Stocking recipient families in any general way. Some are single parent families, some are not; some are foster parents and others are grandparents who are raising their children's children. "It really is all across the board," he said.
Family size is usually small, one or two children. Mr. Alley said fewer than a half-dozen families have four or five children. The large majority of the families receive some form of public assistance, including, for example, food stamps, MassHealth, WIC (a federal nutrition program), free or reduced-cost school lunches, or assistance with housing or fuel costs.
Mr. Alley and Ms. Clark said that neither the Brazilian population nor any other group or minority disproportionately influenced the application figures this year. They said that there are Brazilian families in the Red Stocking recipient population this year, as there have been for many years. Mr. Alley said there was no significant difference in numbers of Brazilian families or other ethnic groups this year from last year. "This is about kids, it's not about who they are," he said.
Worried that the several dozen extra children would result in a shortage of toys, Gail Craig of Edgartown sent out a frantic e-mail plea to about 20 friends across the Island late last week. That e-mail was quickly forwarded from friend to friend. Ms. Craig said she spent more than two and a half hours Monday evening handling the dozens of phone and e-mail responses she received.
On Monday morning, when volunteers gathered to set up the gift-wrapping operation at Grace Church, some still feared that toys could run out, but by Tuesday those fears were put to rest. Vineyarders began arriving at Grace Church, some with one toy, some with bags full. Others came by to see if any specific gifts were needed and promised to return with a high chair, back pack, or other costly item. "It was a huge response," said Ms. Craig. "It was gigantic."
Ms. Craig is a Red Stocking board member. She stressed that she had sent the e-mail as an individual, not on behalf of the organization. She explained that her mother, Buzzy Gardner, who died in 2004, was very active with Red Stocking and a strong believer that children needed toys at Christmas. Ms. Craig said that her mother would always shop for toys herself, using her own money and cash collected from friends. Remembering her mother's determination that no child would go without a toy on Christmas morning, Ms. Craig has carried on this effort.
Ms. Craig explained that while Red Stocking purchases clothing and other necessities, it depends on the community to supply toys. She said those contributions were down this year, probably as a result of economic pressures and numerous product recalls, which are making consumers hesitant to buy toys. In her e-mail message she wrote, "By forwarding this message to the people on your list, you won't get good luck or have a wish come true by 11:00, but you could change the holiday for a child in need."
The application period runs from Nov. 1 to Dec. 7. Although families are urged to apply on time, Red Stocking routinely receives several last-minute or emergency applications. Although they pledge they will abide by the deadline, the generous organizers do not turn these families away. In fact, yesterday morning, Ms. Clark reported she had just added two more children to the list: both were under three years old.
Applicants are asked to state why they are seeking Red Stocking help and whether they are on any other forms of public assistance. They must supply the name of a professional person, often a teacher, medical caregiver, social worker, or other such individual, who can attest to their need. All these references are checked carefully. Occasionally, applicants are rejected when they do not meet the need criteria. School age children must be enrolled in an Island school, Ms. Clark said, explaining that children must be part of this community to receive Red Stocking help.
Along with their children's ages, applicants list three practical items, usually clothing, that they want to receive. Parents or children may also make "wish list" requests for toys or other items, which will be filled only if possible.
Using funds raised or contributed during the year, Red Stocking provides all children with pajamas, underwear, socks, mittens, and a hat. Each child also receives the three practical items requested, often boots, a winter jacket, or other wearable. Although the organization purchases most of these necessities, it looks to the community to provide toys.
The annual Chili Contest, Chowder Contest, and Martha's Vineyard Harley Riders "Toys for Tots" Run are the main sources of Red Stocking income. Adding to the coffers are contributions from individuals, organizations, and other fundraising efforts in the community. Mr. Alley said last year's budget was approximately $75,000, of which $30,000 was spent on food. Along with providing children's presents at Christmas, the organization purchases and gives Red Stocking families gift certificates for groceries at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and in March, from the Reliable Market, Stop & Shop, and Cronig's. As well as donations of toys and goods from individuals, schools, and community groups, a number of merchandise gifts come from generous local businesses, Mr. Alley said. One of these is East Chop Sleep Shop, which contributes beds and bedding to several families each year. Some merchants also give discounts to Red Stocking shoppers.
With bills for clothing and food still outstanding, but with cash contributions still coming in, Mr. Alley could not say what this year's budget would add up to. But both he and Ms. Clark said they are not worried. They are confident of the Vineyard community.
"A day doesn't go by without checks coming in," Mr. Alley said. "We have faith that will continue to happen and that we will pay the bills too. The people that support us are always there, they're always generous."