By Mary Fox
Christmas trees decked in tinsel and lights, and dressed in red and green numbered tags, can be found at the Ellicottville Pharmacy, M&T Bank, Holy Name of Mary Roman Catholic Church, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and Five Star Bank. The tags are for Project Christmas in its 46th year of providing clothing and food for those in need.
Project Christmas has been bringing Christmas to needy families since 1967. It began as a project of the Future Nurses Club at Ellicottville Central School, headed up by school nurse Betty Westfall.
Betty was familiar with the families in the school district who struggled to make sure their children were kept healthy, had proper clothing and nourishing diets. She often “found” ways to help these families with extra food, boots, mittens or warm jackets. Betty made a list of families she thought could use help, called each one on her list and asked if they would be willing to accept a Christmas gift of food and clothing. She asked for names of families she might have missed and checked with them, too.
With a completed list of 15 names in hand, coded anonymously with pertinent information such as, family #1 — 4 members, girl age 8 size 6, boy, age 12 size 10 — Betty and her girls put out the word for donations. A tiny room in the school basement (then the 1887 Building) served to collect used toys, which were repaired and painted by the agriculture department. Used clothing was cleaned and repaired by the home economics department, which also made clothing for dolls.
School secretary Shirley Morton began working on Project Christmas the year she started working at ECS in 1970, eventually taking charge of the project in 1987. Shirley retired in 2000, but the project lives on now in charge of a group of volunteers headed by School Nurse Kim Watt.
Each year the list of families is reviewed, adding some and taking off some.
“Families may need help one year, others many years,” said Shirley.
One family sent a large monetary donation thanking Shirley for the help received the previous year and wanted to pass it on to help someone else get back on their feet.
In more recent years, senior citizens have been added to the list of those receiving Christmas boxes.
It didn’t take many years before a larger collection area was needed, so they expanded to a local church in the village and then to the fire hall. Eventually, after the new elementary wing was added at ECS, Project Christmas was able to use a large multi-purpose room at the school.
Because of the tremendous increase of those now served, volunteers no longer repair used toys or clothing and accept only donations of new items.
Like a well-oiled machine, things are set into motion in early October, although the hum of activity can be heard all year long. Today, Project Christmas has grown to include over 50 families and 65 senior citizens.
It’s not too late to contribute to Project Christmas. Everyone is invited to take a boy or girl tag from the Project Christmas trees in various village locations, and buy and wrap a gift appropriate for that child’s age and size. Identities are protected by numbers designating the receiving families.
Tags go fast, so if you don’t find one, you can still give a gift to a child by marking the package for a boy or girl, including age and size where appropriate. You can also give money, which will help buy food items to include in the Christmas box given to the families.
Contributions need to be in by Dec. 16 in time for junior and senior students of the Ellicottville Central School to distribute them on Dec. 20 in time for Christmas.
Monetary donations may be made to Project Christmas and mailed to Kim Watt, School Nurse, Ellicottville Central School, 5873 Route 219, Ellicottville, NY 14731.