Operation Christmas

Catholic project now ecumenical

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter Operation Christmas co-chair Gwen Anderson shows the collection of special gifts from Toys for Tots that will be given away through the annual Christmas program this year. Toys, shampoo, hygiene items and food will be sorted here in the former Blockbuster building west of the mall, while the donation and sign-up spot is within the Crossroads Mall, through a door just under the arch.

It all started with two women, Cele Sanders and Denise O’Brien, the wives of doctors, driving around in their cars to make deliveries to the less fortunate in Fort Dodge.

These two saw the need was great, and recruited the women from the local Catholic parishes to help them.

In 2017, the Operation has grown into an ecumenical effort sponsored by Church Women United, a collection of about 20 churches, requiring the service of 200 volunteers during the weeks it’s open.

Today Ruth Reed and Gwen Anderson are co-chairs and Marilyn Savage is secretary/treasurer.

“I’ve been involved off and on,” Savage said, “for about 45 years.”

Operation Christmas is older than that. The history of the group, Savage said, was found in the form of a handwritten document in the bottom of a box. Those notes explain how O’Brien and Sanders first started the group in 1951.

O’Brien was a former social worker, the history explained, and took a key role in organizing the volunteers.

The women in the first years of the group set up the rules which are still followed today. Families seeking aid must apply to Operation Christmas, names are always kept confidential and names are cross-checked with other organizations such as the American Red Cross.

“We check for duplicates,” Anderson said, “so they’re not getting two.”

Families get a number. The volunteers packing boxes don’t learn the name of the family; information on ages of family members, sizes and other special needs are paired with the number.

In the early days, the women would seek out a building where they could get free rent and had no indoor lighting or heat. The women came in to work in their coats and mittens.

Even during Savage and Anderson’s time with the group, there have been some cold winters.

“We’ve been cold,” Anderson said.

Sometimes, the chair of the organization loved the project so much she would stay for several years. Margaret McDermott stayed so many seasons, she became known as “Mrs. Santa Claus,” the document said.

She also persuaded Savage to join.

“Way back when, that’s when the Catholic churches were totally in charge of the whole thing, this Marge McDermott said to me at a meeting, ‘Marilyn, we need you to help at Operation Christmas,'” Savage said. “That’s when they were down at the corner by the Cheesecake Lady. … They were in that Mueller building across the street. It was cold.”

But that first year, the weather was not particularly Christmassy.

“The first thing I had to do, here in December, was go home and get a fan. It was so hot in that building you couldn’t get your breath,” Savage said. “It was warm outside. We were all dripping wet in that building, it was so hot.”

This was in the 1960s. Savage had kids in school and wasn’t working.

“I said, ‘I can probably give you a couple hours,'” she said.

“That kind of grew, didn’t it?” Anderson asked.

Anderson has been with the group since about 2002. In fact, she and Savage are neighbors.

“It’s kind of contagious,” Anderson said.

It was Madonna Claeys who first suggested the name “Operation Christmas,” according to the document. In 1957, Ann Hassett joined the workers and suggested every child get a pair of warm pajamas. Hassett supervised and cut out pajamas, which were sewed and returned by women throughout the area.

At one time families got used clothing, Savage said. Today, families can look through the tables of donated, used items and pick out what they need when they sign up. Then new clothes, school supplies and other items are put into the boxes which are made available for pickup later.

They also give out toys through the Toys for Tots program,and are affiliated with Bikes for Tykes.

What they give out varies from year to year.

“We’ve been able to add new items. If we have money left over — like last year every family got a new bath towel and a washcloth and a dish towel and dish cloth,” Anderson said. “We’re probably not going to be able to do that this year because of money. If there’s money, we do that. If not, we go back to the basics.”

The volunteers have heat and indoor plumbing these days, but they still rely on donated space to work out of.

“We’re at the mercy of where we can find free rent,” Anderson said. “We pay the utilities.”

“Two years ago we had no idea where we were going, until late. It gets really scary when you can’t get your letters out and tell people where it’s going to be. … We’re just at a standstill until we have our location.”

The group has been all over downtown and all along Fifth Avenue South, she said.

“If there was a tavern open you were in it. Dirt floor and all.”

The group worked out of the former Walgreens in the Crossroads Mall for about five years, and for the past two years has been in both the old Blockbuster and another empty store within the mall.

“The best for us has been the mall, because we don’t have to worry about snow removal and parking,” Anderson said.

“And we need the two locations if we are out there,” Savage added. “We would have to really scale back if we were just in the Blockbuster.”

The group won’t know until October if those spaces are available again, Anderson said.

When Anderson started, the group served about 300 families.

Now it is 500.

“It depends on the space,” she said.

Volunteers have to set up 100 tables for the operation. Many, though not all, of the volunteers come from Church Women United, and the bulk of the funds come from individuals, with support also coming from businesses and churches.

“We rely on service groups for volunteering,” Anderson said. “Men for heavy lifting.”

“We can’t do it without our men,” Savage said.

“‘Have husband with truck.’ That’s how that works,” Anderson added.

The project is all about giving back and helping others, Savage said.

“I do it for the kids,” Anderson said. “I feel these kids don’t ask to be born into these environments and circumstances, and I want every kid to have a Christmas.”

And people will come back the next year, after they’ve been helped, and provide a donation themselves, she added.

“They were given a box, so they’re bringing in donations the next year,” she said. “‘You helped me when I needed help, and here’s four boxes of cereal.'”

“A family came in and brought used children’s clothing, because we had helped them. Well, it makes them think, too, that the world’s a bigger place.”