'Their eyes get as huge as saucers'
The second snow of the season spits out a constellation of big, wet flakes, warning of things to come. If I thought no one was looking, I might stick my tongue out to capture one or two, as any former child in good standing is tempted to do.
I hunch deeper into my coat and walked a little faster. I'd forgotten that cold could be so, well, cold. Geez, it's only October; not supposed to be shivering yet, are we? I passed some kids chattering and playing, undeterred by snow or chill; they probably can't wait for winter to be piled deep enough to make that sledding hill or a big snowman. I don't share that much enthusiasm for it.
I yank hard on the door at the Chamber of Commerce while a feisty northeast breeze tugs back against me. Leave a little puddle on their nice carpet and shake the snow from my hair and shoulders like a old grizzly disturbed from its hibernation.
It's toasty enough in the little meeting room there, and not because of the thermostat. Around a table are some of the warmest hearts in Storm Lake, and the challenge facing them is just beginning to heat up as our weather chills down.
They are the Mr. Goodfellow team. Dozens and dozens of needy Storm Lake children will depend on them this year for the warm winter coats, mittens, hats and boots that they otherwise could not have.
Outside, the snow flies past the window.
It is time for them to go to work.
Mr. Goodfellow isn't a person, at least not exactly. He's the collective generosity of a community that never fails to amaze me. Going on 80 years of age, Old Man Goodfellow hasn't lost a step. Last year, he outfitted nearly 200 children against the worst northwest Iowa's bitter winter has to throw at them, and raised nearly $9,000. In my time with the program, he has served about 2,500 kids and never once let one of them down.
The Pilot pioneered Mr. Goodfellow in the Great Depression years, when legendary publisher W.C. Jarnagin became concerned that children would suffer. In the 1980s, it was there for local children caught in a farm crisis. In recent years, immigrant and refugee families who may arrive without any warm clothes have added to the challenge.
Today, Mr. Goodfellow utilizes a team of preschool and elementary school teachers and staff. When they see children who have no warm winter clothing and families with no means to get them, they put Goodfellow into action. Our volunteer shoppers, with the parent's permission, take a needy child into participating Storm Lake stores and help them pick out what is needed. For some children who have lived in hand-me-downs, it may be the first new coat all of their own they have ever owned. Those who see a child's face light up at that moment say they get as much out of the program as the kid does. While you take a look at the snow continuing to fall out there, they'll tell you.
"A child gets it right away, even the littlest ones know that someone is doing something very special for them. When they get to the rack in the store their eyes get as huge as saucers and they get so excited. I just love it," said volunteer Danelle Lovetinski of Gingerbread House.
"One little girl in particular I remember. She was so small, and she tried on a pair of pink boots. She'd never had a pair before, and it was like she was getting the world. We were at Mike Rust's shop, and he treated her like a princess, was so patient to make sure it was just right. I wish everyone who donates to this program could have seen how adorable it was," she said.
"The parents appreciated the help, but that little girl - she wouldn't take those boots off - wherever she went, she wore them, and told everyone how special those little pink boots were. She wasn't old enough to understand what the program was. To her Mr. Goodfellow was a very real man, and a real special person."
The snow is falling, and the children of Storm Lake need that special man once again.
This is the part where I feel bad for asking for your money. The stuff you work so hard to earn, and have so many other uses for and so many other people trying to get their hands on, I know. If it makes you feel better, you can know that every penny goes straight into coats and other winter stuff for kids, right here. Promise.
If you can spare a little, I thank you, and so will the children. If you can't, God bless you and think warm thoughts.
If you are so inclined, send a check to:
In care of the Pilot-Tribune
P.O. Box 1187,
Storm Lake, 50588
Unless you tell us you need to be anonymous, we'll be printing your name. We're kind of proud of our people that way. Or heck, save a stamp and stop by to say hello. It's 111 W. 7th Street. We don't mind if you track in a little snow, either.
What else can you do? Glad you asked. Pass the hat at work, take a collection for your civic club project. Go through the closet for good used coats that a child might be able to make use of. Ask your church group to knit a few hats or scarves. Check out the mitten tree coming soon at Citizens First National Bank. Inspire a youth group to get involved. Give Mr. Goodfellow a good word every chance you get. There is room in Mr. Goodfellow's world for everybody with a spirit to give.
"The nice thing about Mr. Goodfellow is that it's the whole community's program," says Betty Ohlund, our chairperson of the Mr. Goodfellow board for the second year. "Every donation has meaning, whether it's a dollar or two from an individual who doesn't have a lot to give, or a business making a sizeable effort for their community."
I can't forget a shout out to the Goodfellow partners, either. Julius Cleaners cleans up all those donated coats for us at their own cost. Citizens First National Bank does that great tree where you can pick out a child to warm - and isn't that a bit of what Christmas is about? Bomgaars has been with us for years, offering a discount on every bit of clothing Goodfellow buys to help make the money go further. JCPenney, Rust's Western Shed, Brown's Shoe Fit, Uptown Consignments, Wal-Mart, they are all good to us. They can all see the snow falling out their plate glass windows, and they know what that means. They're ready for the kids.
It's likely to be a tough winter for a lot of people, according to Mr. Goodfellow's good teachers. "Times are a little hard. There are still new people coming into the community all the time. Many of the newcomers from past years are doing better now, but some of the more recent people don't even have jobs yet, let alone funds to buy coats for their families," said Dee Lewis of South School. "It can sometimes be a priority of where the scarce money has to go, starting with food."
"Many times the greatest need seems to be among single mothers. We have cases where they have recently been divorced and have almost nothing to go on, or young mothers trying to put themselves through school," said elementary principal Ed Rude.
"This isn't a case of people asking for handouts. It usually is a family that needs help one particular year or maybe two. Their jobs may be affected by the decisions of a big corporation, or they may have bills they just can't meet. In the future, that parent may well be on their feet and be donating to Mr. Goodfellow themselves," Ohlund said. "These people don't neglect their children, they put them first, but need a hand. We have some who will say that they can scrape up enough for the boots if we can just help with a pair of snowpants."
In those cases, there is nothing of more impact that making a child feel warm and wanted, the teacher-volunteers said. "When you have no coat to wear, it is a very happy feeling to have something warm. Some of them have never had anything new," Lewis said. "We sometimes see children who have to wear two or three layers of whatever can be had in the lost and found box in order to go out to recess like the other children."
Must be a little snow getting in my eyes, because they need a wipe as I leave the Goodfellow team. As long as there is that kind of need, I'm confident the volunteers and the people who donate will be there. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to all who help, all who give, and all who care.
The flakes are falling a little harder now as I walk back to write this, but let them come. Mr. Goodfellow is back on the job in Storm Lake, and he's never let a child stay cold yet.