The weather is blistering cold and the economy is in the tank but Sag Harbor Village volunteers and officials are looking on the bright side this holiday season. Despite an up tick in the local need for gratis services and necessities, the tradition of giving is alive and well. The Christ Episcopal Church is noting a record number of donations for their annual coat drive and Sag Harbor Elementary School collected hundreds of presents for the less fortunate during their popular Mitten Line gift drive.
“I believe during the holidays people are thinking more about giving,” remarked Evelyn Ramunno, the acting director of the Sag Harbor Community Food Pantry.
Over the last two years, since the recession sent the local real estate market and construction industry into a downward spiral, Ramunno has noticed increased attendance on Tuesdays, or food distribution day, at the pantry which operates out of the basement of the First Presbyterian (Old Whalers’) church. In 2007, the pantry was lucky if it served 60 families over the holiday season. This Thanksgiving, close to 80 families picked up fresh fruits, vegetables, turkeys and fixings at the pantry and Ramunno anticipated similar numbers for the Christmas distribution. The need is more acute in the winter, added Ramunno, as seasonal workers experience difficulty in finding jobs.
With times being tough, the basic necessities for getting through a frigid winter are often out of reach for many locals who have fallen upon hard times. Joanne Carter sees this first hand as the organizer of Christ Episcopal Church’s coat drive. When she isn’t at the Sag Harbor-based church, Carter also helps out at the weekly Maureen’s Haven homeless shelter at the East Hampton United Methodist Church. It was at the shelter that Carter met a man, whose story illuminates the often slippery slope into poverty.
“One guy told me he had had a good paying job. But he lost his job and then he lost his house … and then he was sleeping in his car but he couldn’t make the car payments. This was a guy who was once making $80,000 to $90,000 a year,” said Carter. “So many people are jobless and homeless right now, and if they aren’t they don’t have much money. People say there are no homeless people in the Hamptons, but they are wrong. There are people in need. You would be surprised.”
Though many locals are in dire straits, Carter is consoled by increases in coat donations. In 2007, residents provided the church with 30 coats. Two years later, Carter is in the midst of organizing close to 70 pieces of outerwear for men, women and children and those who donated didn’t skimp on quality.
“These are really nice coats. I tell people don’t bring me your junk. We don’t want stuff that people are just trying to get rid of,” explained Carter. “We have jackets, down jackets and dress coats.”
Of the record year for donations, Carter theorized, “When people see there is a need, even though they may have less, people are willing to share what they have.” Carter added that she was overwhelmed by the volume of coats brought in this year. The coat drive is open to the needy every Saturday in December and January. Although the first session attracted only five people, Carter believes attendance will pick up as the weather becomes colder.
Adults aren’t the only ones getting into the spirit of giving during the holidays. At Sag Harbor Elementary School, children are encouraged to lend a helping hand to their less fortunate classmates through participating in the Mitten Line, which was formerly referred to as the Giving Tree, said elementary school guidance counselor Michelle Grant.
Back in 2000, Grant took over the operations of the annual gift drive from current Pierson guidance counselor Eileen Kochanasz. To help students understand the message behind the Mitten Line, Grant wrote “The Mitten Poem” and reads it to the children every first Monday in December to commence the beginning of the program.
As the story goes, a little tot finds a mitten and has a turn of heart. “This mitten was a wish that I could grant. I could show how much I care. I’ll take something off my wish list and buy a gift instead to share,” says the poem.
The Mitten Line begins when Grant collects the wish lists of children in financially strapped families who live in Sag Harbor. Their desired gifts are then pasted onto small paper mittens which are then attached to a line pasted on the wall of the hallway leading to the elementary school gymnasium. It’s a mad dash for the students to grab the mittens for the more exciting items, like a Nintendo system, but the gifts range from basic essentials like winter pajamas to those big ticket presents.
“We have always started with the basic gifts first. We make sure all the kids have hats, gloves, winter pajamas, and school and art supplies,” explained Grant. The program serves only families in the Sag Harbor School District. The presents are dropped off to each individual family’s house with a roll of wrapping paper. It is important, noted Grant, for the parents to know what their children are receiving beforehand and to also have a sense of contribution in the gift giving process. Around 45 to 50 children benefit from the Mitten Line with each child receiving around five to six gifts.
In spite of the recession, the number of participating families has been consistent in the past five to six years, at around 17 to 18. Grant was happy to report that those receiving presents and those giving gifts has stayed the same, although pockets are being pinched across the board. This year, Grant said a family might take one or two mittens whereas before they would have grabbed several. When the Mitten Line was dismantled last Friday, December 18, all of the mittens were taken though with a few Parent Teacher Association members snagging the last three. Grant said several hundreds of mittens were distributed this year.
“I think you are always taken aback by how many families are struggling to make it work out here,” noted Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone. “But there has been an amazing outpouring of support from community members … People were calling as late as Thursday [December 17] offering to do anything extra.”
Although 2009 proved to be a rocky year for most in Sag Harbor, those volunteering in the village were comforted by the level of support from the community. Sag Harbor might be a picturesque village with seemingly few problems but as Grant pointed out there are always individuals in need of help.
“I think if you don’t live here all the time you don’t see it but those of us who live here know that this is here.”