One final ‘Operation Christmas’

Giving organization founded in 1951 holds its final season

-Messenger file photo by Joe Sutter
Ruth Reed, Operation Christmas co-chair, looks through a shopping cart full of donated food in 2012, in its former location at the Crossroads Mall. Next to her are a stack of new donated items; the group hands out both new and used items.

After 66 years of providing toys, clothes and other gifts to those in need in Fort Dodge during the holiday, the volunteers of Operation Christmas are putting on their final giveaway.

Operation Christmas will be located in the Trolley Center this year, 900 Central Ave. On Nov. 14 the group will begin accepting donations. On Nov. 27, the Monday after Thanksgiving, the group will begin taking applications from families.

Deciding to end the program was not an easy decision, said co-chairs Ruth Reed and Gwen Anderson.

“It really is (disappointing), and it breaks my heart to do this,” Reed said. “But you know, we are all getting older, and we don’t have younger people taking over.

“I don’t think I could do it another year, and I don’t do any of the heavy lifting. All I do is paperwork and telephone.”

-Messenger file photo by Joe Sutter
Gwen Anderson, Operation Christmas co-chair, unpacks new children’s coats and toys she bought on sale during the 2012 operation at its former location in the Crossroads Mall. Behind her, piles of new donated items wait to be sorted for the group’s big Christmas giveaway. This year donations will be accepted beginning Nov. 14 at the Trolley Center, 900 Central Ave.

“It wasn’t an easy decision. … There isn’t any younger blood that wants to step in,” Anderson said. “That’s not saying someone else won’t come and do something. They don’t have to do it exactly like we do it.”

The group will be accepting new and gently used winter clothing, Reed said, as well as household items, bedding and towels, Christmas trees and decorations, and personal hygiene products. Cash donations will be used to purchase items for the boxes which are also given out.

Operation Christmas is an ecumenical program run by Church Women United — although there are plenty of male volunteers as well. It provides used clothing to families in need, as well as games, food and other gifts. Group members also purchase new items throughout the year to be given out. They also give out toys through the Toys for Tots program, and are affiliated with Bikes for Tykes.

In recent years, 500 families have been helped every year. The pick up and delivery date this year will be Friday, Dec. 15.

Finding donated space for the operation is always a challenge, Anderson said.

-Messenger file photo by Joe Sutter
Merlin Anderson stacks boxes onto a hand cart in preparation for Operation Christmas 2013. Volunteers will be on hand this year starting Nov. 14 at the Trolley Center for the group’s last Operation Christmas.

The group has been all over downtown and all along Fifth Avenue South. Later 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 mall location didn’t work out this year, Anderson said, due to changes going on at the mall.

“We don’t want to come to a point where, here’s a year where we don’t have any space. That almost happened this year,” she said. “What do we do with all the things we’ve bought throughout the year?”

“We really were getting desperate, and looking for something. There just isn’t a big space around town that is available,” Reed said.

Thanks to Randy Kuhlman, chief executive officer of the Fort Dodge Community Foundation and United Way, the group found the new space downtown, Anderson said.

“I had no idea there was this much space in the Trolley Center available,” she said. “And we’re on the ground floor; we won’t have to go downstairs.”

The only problem will be parking. Visitors will have to bring change to put in the parking meter, or else park on First Avenue North or one block away on Central in the one-hour free parking and walk to the center.

“Our big thing is are they going to be able to find us down there? Are they going to pay the quarter for the parking meter?” Anderson said. “I’m sure they’ll find us. They always do. It’s just the uncertainty, because we haven’t worked there before.”

Times have changed, Anderson said, and the organization can’t operate the way it used to.

“We can’t buy our clothing in town anymore. We have to go out of town,” she said. “The big box stores — we don’t have JC Penneys anymore; we don’t have Sears. We like sales. We can’t afford Younkers.”

Reed said that at age 81, she can’t keep the operation going any longer.

“It’s a sad thing that it’s happening, but that’s the way things go,” she said. “We thank people for their support for the last 60 years. Fort Dodge has been very generous to the project.”

Anderson said there are other groups in town who help the needy around Christmas. And it’s always possible someone will start a new giving organization.

“There will be somebody who steps up and does something. There are other agencies in town. It just won’t be exactly like ours,” Anderson said. “We’ve done it for 60-plus years. All is well. We’ve helped a lot of people.

“It wasn’t an easy decision. There were some tears involved. But we’re proud of what we’ve done.”

To read more about Operation Christmas’s history, visit

Operation Christmas

To Donate:

Donations accepted weekdays starting Nov. 14, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Trolley Center, 900 Central Ave.

For more information call 576-1549. Donations can be sent to Operation Christmas, P.O. Box 278, Fort Dodge, IA

To apply:

Applications begin Nov. 27 and continue through the week or until the maximum amount of families has been reached. Pick up and delivery day will be Dec. 15.

Read more history: