By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — No matter how many years Liz Brown handles the details of the Holiday Sharing Tree Program in Mankato, the stories of the need in the community never fail to amaze her.
“We had one (program participant) that all he wanted was toilet paper,” Brown said. “Another guy just wanted socks and a belt.”
Stated needs such as those, Brown said, put into perspective how lucky people are who have a stable family and enough resources to engage in gift giving at Christmastime.
Luckily, she said, the Mankato area has always made sure that every person in the Sharing Tree program gets some kind of gift. Same goes for the Santa Anonymous program (visit mankatosanta.com). They’ve never come up short. And last year, the Salvation Army met its ambitious fundraising goal.
“We’re doing pretty good,” said Heather Spann, coordinator of the kettle collection program at the Mankato Salvation Army. “We have 6,000 hours total to fill. Last year we filled half, which is a typical year. Our goal this year has been to focus our recruitment on getting all our kettle hours manned. And we’re doing better.”
Over at Toys For Tots, the plan this year is part business as usual, part new twist.
The business-as-usual part is this: Just like every year, there are dozens of spots all over Mankato and St. Peter to drop off unwrapped toys for the program. (Visit mankato-mn.toysfortots.org for a full list of more than 40 drop sites.)
The new-twist part: They’re no longer going to sleep in a tent in the Best Buy parking lot to drum up donations.
“That brought a blizzard to the Mankato area every year,” said Sue Thompson, who along with Bernie Thompson coordinates the program.
Toys For Tots will hold a free kick-off event Friday at the Verizon Wireless Center from 3-9 p.m. with their corporate partner Three Eagles Communications.
Thompson said she’s heard the numbers of people wanting to get in on the program are up. They typically get their referrals from the Salvation Army or the counties, but there is no income requirement for Toys For Tots.
“We’re not worried,” Thompson said. “The people in Mankato and surrounding areas have just been awesome.”
Spann said the Salvation Army is hoping to pull in $275,000 with its Kettle Campaign, and $386,000 in total Christmas donations.
They’re also promoting the use of online tools. They have a website for registering to be a bell ringer (registertoring.com) as well as a new program where people can set up virtual kettles and encourage their friends and family to donate to it online.
“We’re getting a little more cyber hip around here,” Spann said.
At the Holiday Sharing Tree, they’ve got 3,500 people of all ages to get gifts for. In the 26 years of the program, never once have they left people giftless.
There were a few years, Brown said, where they didn’t have enough people pick up cards, or cards weren’t returned. In those years, they’ve had to rely on last-minute “angels,” as Brown calls them, to pick up the slack.
She said the year following the St. Peter tornado was a rough one. Many people, understandably, gave money to relief efforts to help the town recover from the March 1998 storm. When the Sharing Tree program rolled around in November, those cards disappeared slower than usual (The program works by people picking up cards with the age and gender of a person in need, along with an item they’d like for Christmas. They are to return the gifts to the drop-off sites by Dec. 15 this year.)
Most years, the community comes through.
“It makes every single hour of this project worth it when we see the looks on people’s faces,” Brown said.
For more information, including where to pick up Holiday Sharing Tree cards, visit holidaysharingtree.org.