Operation Christmas swings into action this week.
Over the next month, hundreds of volunteers will put in the hours it takes to make this long-running Fort Dodge tradition a reality, and build a Christmas for needy families.
"It takes 250 to 300 volunteers to make this work," said Gwen Anderson.
-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
Ruth Reed, Operation Christmas co-chair, looks through a shopping cart full of donated food. Next to her are a stack of new donated items; the group hands out both new and used items. The Operation will begin accepting donations Tuesday and applications for help Nov. 26 at its location next to Sears in the Crossroads Mall.
Co-chairs Anderson and Ruth Reed met for an interview in the old store building that will house Operation Christmas, located in the Crossroads Mall next door to Sears in what was once Walgreens and later Hancock Fabrics.
Lots of things happen in that space.
Last week, it was just storage for boxes and bags of brand-new donated merchandise and the shopping carts the group needs to carry things around.
At a glance:
WHAT: Operation Christmas
DONATIONS accepted starting Tuesday, until Dec. 5
APPLICATIONS for aid accepted starting Nov. 26
HOURS: 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.
WHERE: Southwest side of Crossroads Mall next door to Sears; only accessible from outside the mall.
MONEY DONATIONS may be given at the site or mailed to Operation Christmas, P.O. Box 278, Fort Dodge, IA 50501.
For more information, call 576-1549.
On Tuesday, the location will be open to accept donations.
Items needed are clean, warm winter clothing for adults and children, new and gently used toys and games, canned and packaged food, sheets, blankets, towels, Christmas decorations, dishes, pots and pans, and small appliances.
Monetary donations are also needed to buy food, health and dental care items, and new toys and clothing.
On Nov. 26, the site will begin accepting applications from families who need help.
Volunteers will pack a box for the families with newer items from the back of the store, which can be picked up or delivered Dec. 14. But when they come to sign up, Reed said, families will also be given a sack to pick out things they need from the used section in front.
"It's like a big garage sale, but it's free," Reed said.
"They'll come in and their children aren't wearing winter coats," said Anderson. "We don't wait until Dec. 14 to put a new winter coat in, because it's going to be cold in the end of November. So we take them back, get them a new winter coat, and gloves and hats. Kids can't be cold."
For the packed boxes, "We try to do two new articles of clothing and two new toys for each child," Reed said. "We know their sizes, and any special needs their kids have. If they need pajamas, we'll make a note of that. Or winter coats.
"Most of the kids we get need everything."
Bob and Nancy Ropte have been volunteering at the Operation for about seven years.
"Bob helps with taking the boxes back. I help sort clothes and lay them out," Nancy Ropte said. "When people come, he helps unload their cars, or if they bring it in theirselves he takes it where it needs to be sorted."
The community usually responds well with donations, Ropte said - but there's a great need as well.
"In the beginning, it's anything they can use that's used, and boy we get some awfully nice donations," she said.
"We're always short of kids clothes."
Towards the end, the group provides the pieces needed to cook Christmas dinner, she said.
"We set up a food line, and it's turkey and eggs and sometimes bread, kind of all the basics to make a Christmas meal."
Anderson has been with Operation Christmas for 10 years, and Reed's been involved for 30. They said the people are always very grateful.
"They cry. They hug. They're overwhelmed. When they pick up those boxes, they're so happy. It's a big day," Anderson said. "That's what Christmas is, is helping each other and kids. They need Christmas. Or the little elderly person who's sitting in an apartment all by himself. That might be the only contact they have, is a Christmas box."
The project helps about 450 "family units" every year, Reed said.
Sometimes those are blended families, like a group of sisters or multiple generations living in one house.
They try limit the amount of families, but sometimes aren't able to turn people away.
"We had 462 last year," Anderson said.
"We keep adding more," Reed said. "We feel 450 is about all we can handle space-wise in this location."
When the project stops taking on families, it sends them to other locations such as The Salvation Army, she said.
The project is sponsored by Church Women United, and run by volunteers from churches and service organizations throughout Webster County.
In past years, members of the Air National Guard have taken time off to help deliver the boxes, Reed said.