November 14, 2003

Local 'Elves' Supply Gifts

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Will Ferrell is not the only full-grown elf this winter. For the 13th consecutive holiday season, Elves, an organization of volunteers from the Cornell campus and the greater Ithaca community, will be supplying local needy children with holiday gifts.

The program relies on social workers and school nurses to identify students who are in the greatest need. Using profile sheets distributed by elves, the social workers and nurses gather information on each recipient’s clothing size and special interests so that elves can properly provide brand-new clothing and toys. Elf sponsors, which can range from individual Cornell students to an entire office staff to local families, receive information specific to the child that they are sponsoring and shop accordingly: Each child receives a new pair of socks, underwear, a new outfit, pajamas, a hat and gloves and a toy.

The Elves program began in 1991, when members of Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Office of Academic Programs decided to forgo an intra-office holiday gift exchange and pool their resources for something that they felt was more meaningful.

“We were spending $5 on each other for nonsense,” recalled a staff member quoted in Elves promotional literature. “It just seemed a waste of money. So we said, ‘This is silly. Let’s pool that money and do something useful with it!'”

In 1991 when the program began, five children were sponsored. Last year, over 300 children from 15 area schools received holiday gifts through the efforts of Elves.

“Every year we’ve sponsored more children,” said Bill Alberta M.S. ’77, associate director of Cornell Career Services and the Elves program founder.

According to Alberta, the children who benefit from Elves’ efforts are in dire need of new clothing and lifted spirits, especially during the winter season.

“School nurses see some of these children come to school in the same outfits, with no socks, and thin coats during the coldest time of the year,” he said. “We’re not solving their problems, but we are trying to bring some brightness to their lives during this time of year.”

Elf sponsors are instructed to purchase new and especially durable items for the child they are sponsoring.

“All items must be new: these children have plenty of ‘used’ in their lives,” advisees the Elves sponsorship shopping guidelines. “Try to buy things that won’t wear out quickly. Nurses tell us that these kids are so proud of their new outfits they wear them very frequently,” the instructions add.

While Alberta and other Elves leaders are pleased that the program has experienced so much growth in the past decade, he also emphasizes their commitment to an enjoyable charitable experience.

“Our goal is to help as many students as possible while having fun,” he stated. “We want to keep the program manageable as well as enjoyable for the people involved. I like to see people enjoying the whole project.”

The Elves program strictly protects the identity of the family receiving gifts to the extent that children receiving gifts may not even be aware that they have received gifts from sponsors.

“It is up to the parents to reveal the source of the gifts [if at all],” Alberta said.

Some parents choose to tell their children that their gifts are the product of Elves sponsors, while others may take credit for the gifts themselves or claim that they are the product of Santa Claus.

According to Alberta, the elf sponsors derive a lot of joy in facilitating this sort of gift-giving. To summarize the spirit of their endeavor, Alberta quoted Norman Vincent Peale, who said, “Joy increases as you give it and diminishes as you keep it to yourself.”

Archived article by Ellen Miller