What’s up with the Red Stocking?

More giving every year.

Left to right, David Caseau, Harley Riders treasurer; Mike "Panhead" Fuss; David "Cricket" Willoughby, Riders vice president; Lisa Mathieu; Renei Mathieu, Harley Riders president, and Susie Wallo, Red Stocking Fund co-chair. — Photo by Michael Dello Russo

There really is a Santa Claus, and a band of his elves is based on Martha’s Vineyard. Every year the Red Stocking Fund provides Christmas gifts for 300 to 400 kids in need. The organization’s roots date to the 1930s and the inspiration of one woman who recruited friends to knit stockings and fill them with toys. Today, although the initiative has grown substantially, it is still a grass-roots effort manned by an all-volunteer army of close to 100 people, and supported by hundreds more.

Along with a crowd of helpers, who shop, collect, wrap, and number the gifts, the donations of money and toys all come from local fundraisers and the Island community. “It’s absolutely amazing,” says co-chair of the Red Stocking Board Susie Wallo; “it never ceases to amaze me how generous this Island is. They hear the word ‘kids’ and it’s done.”

Ms. Wallo and Leslie Frizzell took over as co-chairs just this year. Their predecessors, Kerry Alley and Lorraine Clark, both of whom headed the operation for many years, are still involved. “They’ve been holding our hands through the whole process,” says Ms. Frizzell; “they’ve just been great.”

Three annual off-season events benefit the Red Stocking fund -— the Martha’s Vineyard Big Chili Contest in January, the Chowder Contest held each year during Christmas in Edgartown weekend, and the MV Harley Riders Toys for Tots ride. The Harley Riders handed over a check for more than $10,000 after their ride earlier this month. The rest of the donations come from local businesses and individuals.

“Kids collect change in the schools or host used-book sales,” says Ms. Wallo. “We always get some large checks, but a lot of it is $5, $10. People who come here in the summer or subscribe to the local papers send us checks. Their hearts go out to the cause. It’s just so incredible. People come out of the woodwork.”

The money collected is used to purchase clothing and gifts and to supply Island families with holiday meals. In November, the Red Stocking Fund distributes applications through banks, schools and churches. Families in need are placed on a list to receive grocery gift certificates around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.

Parents of children up to the eighth grade can provide a list of their children’s most needed clothing and hoped-for toys. The toy donations all come from individuals and local businesses and organizations. The Red Stocking accepts only new toys, games, or books. All kids get a book and some sort of art supplies.

The volunteers try to honor the gift wishes when they can. “It’s just basic toys,” says Ms. Wallo. “We don’t do electronics. Kids always love Legos. We get a huge list for bikes. One person donated seven brand-new bikes this year during the Harley ride.” Ms. Wallo says that local stores the Toy Box and Brickman’s generally have a good idea of what toys are needed.

Many of the local schools and churches hold toy drives and collect monetary donations. Last year the Oak Bluffs firefighters and EMTs stuffed an ambulance full of donated toys. There are boxes at locations around the Island for those who want to drop off a new, unwrapped item before the distribution date of Dec. 12.

Around this time of year, a group of shoppers sets out to purchase warm clothes for the kids. “Each package includes several major items of clothing,” says Ms. Wallo, “like a jacket or sweater, in addition to pajamas, socks, underwear, hats and mittens. The last two are generally handmade items donated by local knitters. Each kid also gets a book donated by the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore.”

A few days before the distribution date, a crew arrives at St. Augustine’s Church in Vineyard Haven to wrap and sort the gifts. Everything is kept confidential. Volunteers work from numbered lists, with no names. “The most important thing is that it’s anonymous,” says Ms. Wallo.

The whole process takes hours, and dozens of volunteers, and it’s quite the logistical feat to match children’s ages and desires to the available toys, but it always somehow manages to work out.

“We never know once those application go out how many we’re going to get. We just do it on faith that it’s going to happen,” says Ms. Wallo. “You will be there on a Wednesday afternoon and say, ‘Look, we don’t have anything for this little kid.’ Then someone will walk in with a load of donations or one of the volunteers will disappear and come back with two or three toys. It’s all built on the fact that these kids need help, and somehow, some way, the community comes together. It’s all just for the kids, and that’s what’s so wonderful.”