Red Stocking Fund: the “elderly elves” behind the operation

Lorraine Clark, Leslie Frizzell, Susie Wallo, and Kerry Alley, the "elves" of the Red Stocking Fund. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Old high school classmates and Island natives — now in their 70s — Kerry Alley and Lorraine Clark, do not, in fact, think of themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus for their 30-plus years of heading up the Red Stocking Fund which, in addition to all its other eleemosynary functions, provides Christmas presents to roughly 475 Island kids, from newborn to 8th grade, whose families face economic challenges. (I try to deploy the word eleemosynary once a year in my reporting work; it means charitable, and if we don’t keep the term in everyday usage, it’s bound to end up in the linguistic dustbin.)

“Lorraine and I think of ourselves as elves,” Mr. Alley said in a recent phone interview when asked about the Santa Claus comparison. “Old elves.”

Ms. Clark expanded on the geriatric elves theme in her own interview. “Way too old to be doing this much longer,” she said.

The operation of Red Stocking is a year-round job for these self-professed elderly elves, as they take charge of donations of money, and collect or shop for toys, new clothes, art supplies, sports equipment, books, and anything else the approved families have itemized on wish lists for their kids. Ms. Clark noted that, this fall, a number of families have asked for bedding — sheets, blanket, and comforters. “The bedding must be new and still in its packaging,” she added. Red Stocking has always committed itself to gifting items that middle class families would themselves wrap and place under their Christmas trees.

In addition to their early December distribution day of holiday gifts and baskets of food, Red Stocking gears up to provide families in need with three holiday meals — one at Thanksgiving, another at Christmas, and a third presented sometime between Valentine’s Day and Easter.

Mr. Alley said, “Every year we hand out $10,000 in food and gift certificates to Island supermarkets.”

In other words, the Red Stocking Fund, growing over seven decades, has become a colossal campaign. It occurs to this reporter that had Ms. Clark and Mr. Alley been running General Motors, no government bailout would have been necessary.

Throughout the year, people send in donations of money and, frequently, Mr. Alley and Ms. Clark are stopped in the streets as friends and neighbor “force” checks on them. But two big fundraisers rake in most of the cash. The first is the annual November Martha’s Vineyard Harley Riders rumble, starting with a send-off at the Portuguese American Club in Oak Bluffs. The party launches a long rip-snorting tour of the Island as bikers collect toys and donations. They’re also known to hand over a sizable check of their own upon their return to a boisterous welcome at the P-A Club.

Oh, those eleemosynary Harley riders.

The second is the uber-fun Chili Contest, this year to be held sometime in January, one of those rare deep-winter festivals that light up our profoundly dark streets and hearts.

Another huge boost to the effort are the many Vineyarder individuals and groups who come forward to sponsor Red Stocking kids — schools, banks, book clubs, churches and, one could even imagine life guard stations, should any of them stay open in the winter, come to the fore. Virtually every workplace and community arena where the electricity stays on stands ready to pony up whatever toys or other necessities are itemized for the families signed up for Red Stocking care.

Applications are placed at strategic locations all over the island. Parents may list for each child up to five toy options and up to three larger options such as boots or show suits. In addition, each child’s size, favorite color, and other preferences are noted. Finally, an authorizing figure such as a social worker, teacher, doctor, or clergy member signs his or her name to corroborate that this family will benefit from Red Stocking’s aid.

A big change lies in store for the group’s operations: Grace Church in Vineyard Haven, which has hosted distribution day for many decades, has quite simply run out of space, and the gifts that once plied every available surface and mounted up to the stained glass windows will now be heaped in the larger downstairs hall at St. Augustine’s, a couple of away on Franklin Street.

Mr. Alley said, “Not only do we need the extra indoor space, but the parking lot is enormous. Parking just generally will be much easier at St. Augustine’s.”

Ms. Clark sounded sad and nostalgic about the move. “We’ve been in Grace Church for so long, but this makes more sense,” he said.

This year’s distribution date is set for December 13 from 9 am to 12 noon. Parents will arrive with numbers to protect their privacy while volunteers man the tables and find the appropriate items. Mr. Alley said the Edgartown school will bring 25 boxes of food on dollies to be incorporated into food baskets.

The original elves of Red Stocking were two ladies from Edgartown, Addie Crist and Irene Flanders, both of whom saw many Island parents in the 1930s struggling to provide gifts for their kids. Over the decades, other Red Stocking leaders have assumed the directorship, and now the Alley/Clark head elves roles will pass to two avid board members, Susie Wallo of Edgartown and Leslie Frizzell of Oak Bluffs.

Mr. Alley said he’ll miss some of the heart-warming perks of the job. “Every year parents send us thank-you notes and pictures of their kids.”

Ms. Clark noted she was particularly pleased when recipients of Red Stocking, finding their fortunes improved, will frequently give back by becoming volunteers themselves. “We have three single moms who landed good jobs. Now they’re on the other side of the table passing out gifts.”

Very eleemosynary, those single moms.

To donate to the Red Stocking fund, contact Lorraine Clark at 508-693-0725 or Kerry Alley at 508-693-2324, or send checks to Red Stocking Fund and mailed in care of Susie Wallo at P.O. Box 600, Edgartown MA 02539. To volunteer, contact Patricia Carlet at 508- 693-3187.