So much for the idea that just one jolly old elf shows up with all the Christmas presents.
In Saratoga County alone there are hundreds of them.
They refer to themselves as “friends,” not elves, but they do the same job: provide Christmas gifts for kids. The effort is not North Pole-based, instead taking place much closer to home. Orchestrated by the 38-member Saratoga County Children’s Committee, the Empty Stocking Project enlists the help of local residents to fill wish lists for about 800 of Saratoga County’s most needy children.
How to help
• To donate Christmas gifts for the Empty Stocking Project or to join the committee, leave a message on the Saratoga County Children’s Committee’s voicemail at 448-5120.
• Monetary contributions can be mailed to the committee at P.O. Box 1254, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866
“They really don’t know who we are. A lot of the younger kids probably think it’s coming from Mom and Dad, or Santa,” said project co-chair Staci Mannion.
Children in need are referred to the group by schools and agencies, including the Department of Social Services, Saratoga County Early Intervention and the Franklin Community Center. Lists of the children’s wants and needs are matched with “friends” who make sure each child has gifts to open Christmas morning.
The program began shortly after World War II, according to longtime committee member Gail Veitch.
“When the soldiers were coming home from the war and they were having problems with getting jobs, they sometimes needed to have their kids be taken care of at the Hawley Home for Children, which was an orphanage, but it was also a respite for children whose parents needed to put them there when they were having hard financial times,” she explained.
A group of social workers decided to provide holiday gifts for children living at the Saratoga-based home, and since then the program has grown to include children throughout Saratoga County.
The need for it is huge, said Mannion.
“Each of our agencies and all of our schools would easily be able to give us more kids, but we just don’t have the people to take them right now. The need is so much bigger than the actual help out there,” she said.
Although it could use more helpers, the project does have a great number of generous individual contributors and corporate sponsors. Each is matched with a child or children to shop for. They put together gift bags and deliver them to drop-off points in Saratoga County. From there, the bags are brought to the referring agencies and schools, which then deliver them to the children’s parents or caregivers.
In Corinth and Stillwater, school psychologists make the deliveries to the homes.
“They’re like, ‘I feel like Santa. It’s the best day ever. People are in tears,’ ” Mannion recounted.
The needy children have all been matched with “friends” for this holiday season, but it’s not too late to donate gifts. Gift bag fillers like toiletries, movie passes and socks will still be accepted until Dec. 9, Mannion said. Cash donations are also accepted, and are used to purchase anything that isn’t donated.
“Every year we struggle, with these hard economic times,” said 21-year committee member Joanne Luciano. “People are finding it difficult to provide holiday gifts for their own families, and they’re cutting back, so we are greatly appreciative of the community, their help and everything.”
Nearly all of the funds raised through the effort benefit children in need. The only expenses the committee has are a voicemail line, stationery and stamps, Luciano said.
Throughout the year, the committee fills other requests from needy families, for things like prom dresses, musical instruments and athletic equipment. Before school starts, a backpack drive is held to help ensure every child will show up on the first day of classes with all of the needed supplies.
“I like this program very much because of the fact that we are working with agencies who are identifying the children’s needs. They’re familiar with their families, and they’re familiar with the children, and when they have a crisis or a need, or have some kind of a situation with a child, we can help quickly and we can help very specifically throughout the year,” Veitch said.