Key Retirement, And 2 New Commanders
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special To www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – There comes a time when even Christmas Elves have to retire.
“I’ve handled the Angel Tree toys for over 50 years,” said Salvation Army Maj. (ret.) Mary Smith. “I was an officer for 44 years, then a major, then after I retired, I kept volunteering.”
This is Smith’s last Christmas handling the hundreds of toys donated to the Salvation Army as part of the annual Angel Tree program, which invites community members to either adopt and buy gifts for a family, or take an individual tag off any of the 20 “Angel Trees” at businesses throughout Otsego County.
“We have 1,500 tags out there,” she said. “Some of those Angel Trees have 25 tags, others have 200.”
The Salvation Army also identifies families – 32 this year, about as many as 2018 – and invited the public to buy gifts for them or a single child.
“Families come and apply,” she said. “And we select them by the stories they tell us.”
Many of the families are held up by single mothers. “One woman came in, she’s got cancer, and she’s got two children,” she said. “She had never reached out for help before, so we made sure her family got adopted.”
Another was worried she would go into debt buying Christmas presents, and others just don’t have the resources. “People have hardships,” she said. “We don’t ask too many questions. If you want help, you get help.”
And in her workshop – the gymnasium of the River Street headquarters – there are more than 100 dolls, ranging from baby dolls to Barbie and Disney Princesses. There are 200 LEGO sets, and 13 bikes. “Last year, we gave away 40 bikes,” she said. “I think the reason we have so few this year is that those bikes are still in use, they’re handed down to the younger siblings.”
And although the Angel Tree is for children up to 12, Smith doesn’t want the older children to go without. “We get makeup and jewelry for the older girls,” she said. “And one woman asked us for help with some school supplies for her daughter, and we were able to get her everything she needed.”
In addition to toys, she makes sure every child gets a new outfit and, when necessary, a new coat.
“I enjoy it,” she said. “I’m a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother, so I know what toys the kids will like, and I make it my mission to see that they get stuff they asked for.”
And it isn’t Christmas without a feast. “We have 220 food baskets this year, not as many as previous years,” said Smith. “We give them everything for a Christmas dinner; a turkey, stuffing, gravy, real potatoes and sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and butter.”
This Christmas is the first for new the new commanders, Majs. Cheryl and Roger Compton, who had previously served in the Bahamas.
“Christmas is our most important fundraiser,” said Roger. “It takes us into the new year, when not a lot is happening, but people still need to eat.”
With Thanksgiving starting late this year, the kick-off started the week before. And new on the kettles this year was Apple and Google Pay codes, allowing donors who don’t have cash on hand to still put money in the kettle.
The annual kettle drive has a $50,000 goal and continues through Christmas Eve. And Lettis Auctions once again auctioned off a gold coin to benefit the Salvation Army, fetching $500.
“The people in this community are so generous,” said Smith. “Whether it’s an elderly person who can only afford to buy a coloring book, or a businessperson who buys a bike. So many people really support us.”