Every holiday season for more than a century, the Wisconsin State Journal’s Empty Stocking Club has distributed brand-new toys to children in need from across the Dane County area. This year will be no different.
And yet — it will be.
Empty Stocking Club, a nonprofit supported by generous donations from State Journal readers and other community members, in 2019 gifted some 10,000 toys to about 3,200 area families. It’s expected that this year there may be even greater need. And organizers have been forced to find a new way to get the toys into the hands of deserving families.
In the past, toy recipients joined a festive crowd at the Alliant Energy Center, aided by in-person volunteers, to pick out an age-specific item for each child, bag it up and take it home. The two-day event was known as the Toy Depot.
But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers are retooling the way that dolls, games, building sets and other holiday surprises will be delivered.
Empty Stocking Club plans to partner with school social workers and more than 50 nonprofits and social service organizations in the region that already have a relationship with financially strapped families. Some toys might be distributed through facilities such as community centers and day cares. In other cases, advocates might pick up toys at a reconfigured sort of “Toy Depot” to take to the families they serve. No toys will be distributed directly from the Alliant Energy Center.
Children who are not affiliated with a community organization, but whose families are experiencing financial hardship, can also qualify for a gift.
“I think we’re going to be prepared to accommodate a wide range of realities,” said Lynn Wood, executive director of the Empty Stocking Club. “We’re really utilizing community partnerships, and relying on those partnerships to help us get toys into kids’ hands. We are anticipating there to be even more need this year.”
Key to the collaboration is the Madison Reading Project, which during the COVID-19 pandemic has already managed to safely distribute more than 10,000 books to organizations serving area families.
“Our goal in raising funds this year for Empty Stocking Club is to make sure kids ages 0 to 16 get a toy and — new this year — a book as well,” Wood said.
Some 475 volunteers helped run the Toy Depot in 2019, and the need will be even greater this December, Wood said. The Exposition Hall at Alliant Energy Center will again serve as distribution headquarters, but the event will stretch over a full week, as opposed to two days in the past, and no toys will be distributed to individual families from that location. Safety protocols such as social distancing and mask requirements will be in place to protect volunteers, who might work on behind-the-scenes tasks such as organizing toys for a drive-through pickup, Wood said.
Set-up will begin Dec. 7, with toy distribution scheduled for Dec. 8-11. A high demand for toys is expected, said Wood, because other toy programs that traditionally take place in public spaces, such as “giving trees” in shopping malls, might not be able to operate this year. To add to the logistical challenges, regular distribution channels for holiday toys have been disrupted by COVID-19, she said.
Founded 102 years ago — during the 1918 flu pandemic, in fact — the Empty Stocking Club serves children who live in Dane County and the immediate surrounding area.
Donors, volunteers and families in need with children up to age 16 can reach Empty Stocking Club online at www.emptystockingclub.com starting Thursday. Each Sunday from Nov. 1 to Dec. 20, State Journal readers will find a convenient pre-addressed envelope in their newspaper to mail in a donation. Donors also can make a gift by credit card at www.emptystockingclub.com starting in mid-October, or mail a check to Empty Stocking Club c/o the Wisconsin State Journal, P.O. Box 8056, Madison, WI 53708.
Nonprofits and social service organizations serving clients who might qualify for Empty Stocking Club can reach executive director Wood directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The State Journal publishes all names of Empty Stocking Club donors in the newspaper to thank them for their support. Donors may remain anonymous if they desire.
The Empty Stocking Club also helps to fund the newspaper’s Helping Hands program. Through Helping Hands, Wisconsin children become the donors by writing to the State Journal to say how they would spend $200 to help someone in need in their communities. Helping Hands then provides a grant to those people highlighted in select letters. Those stories will be published in the State Journal’s Sunday Best features section in December.