BRATTLEBORO—How do you replace a community nonprofit that has delivered warm winter clothing to children in need for three generations?
How do you duplicate an all-volunteer organization that, over the past few years, has raised an average of about $95,000 every December, with 99 percent of the money raised going toward coats and boots for kids ranging from infants to 15-year-olds?
How do you take over for a charity that helped more than 1,500 children last year, doing everything from buying and distributing the winter clothing to vetting the applications from families from across southeast Vermont and southwest New Hampshire?
The short answer is you can’t.
The United Way has offered to be the organizing agency of the program, which has been around since 1937 and will cease to exist in its present form after the upcoming holiday season is over.
That much was clear on Sept. 22, when a group of community members met with Christmas Stocking volunteers, but the process of figuring out a succession plan when 2015 draws to a close is only beginning.
Big shoes to fill
Earlier this year, the Stocking committee announced that 2015 would be the final year for distributing winter clothing, due to a variety of factors.
The dozen or so people who did the work were growing older and have been overwhelmed with the growing demand.
Art and Sue Greenbaum, founders of GPI Construction of Brattleboro, recently sold the company. The Greenbaums had in recent years donated space at GPI’s Canal Street headquarters to serve as both a storage area for the clothing and as a distribution center every November.
Missy Galanes, the Stocking’s chief buyer of clothing, said it was getting harder to buy winter gear for the kids. She estimates it costs about an average of $100 to outfit each child with new coats and boots. Volunteer knitters made hats, scarves, and mittens, but not every child got them.
Patricia Smith, the long-time news clerk at the Reformer, kept track of all the donations and typed up all the messages that usually came along with them. She was due to retire at the end of this year, but was laid off in June. Her position has not been filled.
The fund, which traditionally kicked off its fundraising on Thanksgiving weekend, used to reach its annual goal by Christmas. The 2014 campaign didn’t reach its goal until February of this year.
And the Brattleboro Reformer, which has been involved with the Stocking since its inception, provided the Stocking with thousands of dollars worth of free publicity. The newspaper, which also provided insurance for the Stocking, is no longer in a position to fill the role it once did.
Reformer CEO and Publisher Edward Woods was quoted in his newspaper last week that “it is my intention to continue the Reformer Christmas Stocking well into the future, and I’m looking forward to collaborating with other agencies in greater Brattleboro to find the right way to do so.”
But he did not indicate precisely how that would happen.
Stopping, and starting
Normally, the Stocking collects money each holiday season to pay for the following year’s clothing. Even though the goal has been at $90,000 for about a decade, Galanes said actual cost of buying the 1,700 to 2,000 coats and boots needed each year was closer to about $130,000.
Galanes said that the fund built up enough of a surplus that it usually dipped into next year’s money to buy this year’s clothing. With no fundraising planned for this year, there is no surplus for the Stocking to dip into.
Sue Greenbaum said that the Stocking used to be much smaller in scope, with about 300 families participating. Instead of distributing clothes, volunteers would take families shopping at local stores.
By the 1980s, as poverty began to increase in southern Vermont, so did the demands on the Stocking. Every year, the list of families in need kept growing.
“We’ve outgrown it,” she said.
Stocking volunteer Veronica Wheelock said that 54 schools and institutions in the region got application forms. Eligibility was based primarily on the standard used by the federal government’s National School Lunch Program: that family income had to be below 120 percent of the poverty level.
“This has always been a need-based program,” she said.
It also was one where applicants needed a referral, usually from a child’s school or a social service agency, to participate.
The bulk of the 90-minute meeting was taken up by brainstorming to find ways to continue the Stocking’s services. The 15 people in attendance, many of whom represented local social service agencies, raised questions regarding the scope of a reconfigured Stocking — who it would serve, and how distribution of clothing would take place.
United Way of Windham County executive director Sue Graff said her organization couldn’t take over the whole Stocking operation, but it could serve as the nonprofit responsible for handling the funding.
“We see our role as continuing the conversation and helping the Stocking pass the baton,” Graff said.
Groundworks Collaborative Assistant Director Rhianna Kendrick suggested using a voucher system, which could eliminate the challenges with storing and distributing winter clothing.
Galanes advocated letting the program take a break for a year.
“I think it needs a rest,” she said. “The need will show itself more clearly in what areas and what you are responsible for. We just can’t continue like we have. We’ve become too big and too far-reaching. And it’s got to pull back.”
Stocking Chair Elly Majonen praised the Reformer, saying that “they have been amazing, and we owe them quite a lot,” but she understands why the paper is reducing its role.
Graff says the next meeting on the future of the Christmas Stocking will take place on Friday, Oct. 2, at 10 a.m., at the United Way office in Brattleboro at 1 Holstein Place.
“We’re encouraging any partners or individuals who wish to have a role in what comes next to be in touch with us and come to the meeting,” she said.