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Gift of Giving in Bradford, Vt.

‘What’s Important Is That We’re Helping Children Who Need It’

  • Marvin Harrison of Newbury, Vt., packs boxes full of gifts in the Oxbow High School Cafeteria in Bradford, Vt., on Dec. 13, 2013. Dozens of volunteers for Operation Santa Claus filled boxes with toys, books, hats, and mittens for 175 needy children in the Bradford area. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Marvin Harrison of Newbury, Vt., packs boxes full of gifts in the Oxbow High School Cafeteria in Bradford, Vt., on Dec. 13, 2013. Dozens of volunteers for Operation Santa Claus filled boxes with toys, books, hats, and mittens for 175 needy children in the Bradford area.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Darlene Sanborn, left, of Bradford and Amy Mach of St. Johnsbury share a laugh while picking out gifts for needy children as a part of Operation Santa Claus at Oxbow High School in Bradford, Vt., on Dec. 13, 2013. Each child will receive a combination of gifts that he or she asked for and additional gifts, such as crafts and hats and gloves that volunteers select for the children. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Darlene Sanborn, left, of Bradford and Amy Mach of St. Johnsbury share a laugh while picking out gifts for needy children as a part of Operation Santa Claus at Oxbow High School in Bradford, Vt., on Dec. 13, 2013. Each child will receive a combination of gifts that he or she asked for and additional gifts, such as crafts and hats and gloves that volunteers select for the children.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Marvin Harrison of Newbury, Vt., packs boxes full of gifts in the Oxbow High School Cafeteria in Bradford, Vt., on Dec. 13, 2013. Dozens of volunteers for Operation Santa Claus filled boxes with toys, books, hats, and mittens for 175 needy children in the Bradford area. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Darlene Sanborn, left, of Bradford and Amy Mach of St. Johnsbury share a laugh while picking out gifts for needy children as a part of Operation Santa Claus at Oxbow High School in Bradford, Vt., on Dec. 13, 2013. Each child will receive a combination of gifts that he or she asked for and additional gifts, such as crafts and hats and gloves that volunteers select for the children. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

Bradford, Vt. — Fifteen years after he handed the reins of Operation Santa Claus to younger volunteers, Larry Coffin holds close to his heart the memory of The Three Wise Guys who undertook a long journey west in search of gifts for needy kids in greater Bradford.

“We sent these tough senior boys from Oxbow (Union High School) to Barre with money to pick up presents,” Coffin, a retired social-studies teacher who co-founded Operation Santa Claus in 1979 with the Bradford Lions Club, recalled recently. “After they got out of the movies, they went to a department store and filled two or three shopping carts. It wasn’t long before the store manager and somebody in security approached them.

“They just pulled out the five $100 bills we’d given them and said. ‘We’re buying toys.’ ”

Two nights ago, Coffin’s successor Bruce Bishop led a bigger and — well — gentler team of shoppers through the Wal-Mart Superstore in Woodsville, where management annually dedicates a cash register through which the volunteers check out everything from Legos to crayons and coloring books, clothes and blankets to personal-care items such as toothpaste.

“We shop until we can’t stand each other anymore,” Bishop said with a smile before the shopping trip, “or we run out of items on our list.”

Friday night at Oxbow High, Bishop and another squad of elves packed those presents, as well as food baskets and other gifts purchased throughout the year, for children whom Operation Santa Claus chose from around the towns in the Oxbow school district and Fairlee.

“The whole auditorium and cafeteria are just full of stuff,” 10-year-veteran volunteer Patty Clark said last week. “Volunteers go around with boxes and fill them up for each individual family.”

And today, the kids’ parents, 78 of whose applications Operation Santa Claus’ selection committee approved earlier this fall after vetting 90 requests, will pick up those care packages, and bring home boxes of memories.

“We try to stay right around 175 kids every year,” said Bishop, who manages the principal’s office at Oxbow. “We tried for a while to give to 200, but we don’t have the resources to pull that off year after year.”

Bishop estimated that in each of the last several years, Operation Santa Claus raised $15,000 to $16,000 from area residents and businesses toward the purchase of gifts, a bit less than before the recession. Coffin said that in his final year as chairman, the program raised $14,000.

“Back when we started this, Orange County was a poverty-stricken community,” Coffin remembered. “I can recall one family who had no running water in the winter. They kept calves in the kitchen. They wouldn’t have clean clothes to wear. There was a lot of poverty out there. To some extent, there still is.”

Indeed, the U.S. Census found that between 2007 and 2011, 10.6 percent of Orange County’s residents lived below the poverty level — compared with the overall Vermont average of 11.3 percent. Also, median household income in the county sits at $1,015 less per year than the state average of $53,422.

“Over the years,” Coffin added, “we probably gave gifts to little children, and eventually we gave some to their children, I would bet.”

Sometimes, families break that cycle.

“Once or twice a year, we receive (cash) donations from parents who say, ‘You helped us before. It’s our turn to help you,’” Bishop said. “And we get a few thank-you cards every year from people who say that they’re not able to help this year, but who hope they’ll be able to help in the future.

“Those are the ones who help keep you going.” Those, and merchants such as Mary Davenport of the Wing’s Markets in Fairlee and East Thetford, and Ed Wendell of Hill’s 5 and 10 on Main Street in Bradford.

Wing’s donates $1,000 a year and oversees the collection of food that Operation Santa Claus orders and buys for the baskets.

“(Volunteers) give me a count — how many kids they are distributing to — and we deliver the food to the high school,” Davenport said. “It’s a cause we’re glad to contribute to. They’ve done an amazing job over the years.” Amazing enough for Wendell to follow in his father’s footsteps in donating cash and offering deals on toys at the store.

“It’s good for kids who wouldn’t get much for Christmas without it,” Wendell said last week. “This economy’s been kind of tough, especially on poor people.”

The scope of poverty in the area continues to surprise Clark, who spends much of the fall shopping for the arts-and-crafts supplies that parents request.

“It’s sad that it’s like that,” Clark said. “There’s an awful lot of need. That’s why I’m glad to do a small portion. There are people like Bruce and Ruthie Bishop who do it year-round. It’s incredible how much time and energy they put into it.”

Just don’t ask Bruce Bishop to calculate that time and energy.

“It could easily get overwhelming if we let it,” Bishop said. “What’s important is that we’re helping children who need it at this time of year.”