This year every child who qualifies for the Empty Stocking Club will get not one gift, but two:
A brand-new, high-quality toy, keeping with the Empty Stocking tradition that has helped financially strapped families bring joy to their children on Christmas for over a century.
And — a book.
It’s a special bonus for 2020 thanks to a collaboration between the Empty Stocking Club and the Madison Reading Project. From popular graphic novels to in-demand nonfiction books, from childhood classics to engaging tales of Disney characters, the brand-new books supplied by the Madison Reading Project will be carefully selected by project staff and Empty Stocking volunteers to suit each child’s age and interest.
Founded during the 1918 flu pandemic, the Empty Stocking Club is supported by the generous donations of Wisconsin State Journal readers and community members. The program usually allows qualified families of children up to age 16 to come in person and pick out a high-quality toy during the holiday season for each of their children. This year, because of the COVID-19 crisis, Empty Stocking Club organizers, hundreds of volunteers and community partners, such as social service organizations and school social workers, will work behind the scenes to sort, bag and get toys and books into the hands of families in need.
The website www.emptystockingclub.com accepts donations by credit card. Checks for Empty Stocking Club can also be mailed using the convenient envelope included in today’s newspaper.
Madison Reading Project got on board with the Empty Stocking Club this year because of their overlapping clientele, said Deirdre Steinmetz, the project’s literacy and outreach coordinator.
“We realized that we serve a lot of the same people,” she said. “We’re really excited about getting books in the hands of children, especially those who might need them and not have a lot of books at home.”
Having a book under the Christmas tree sends a signal about how truly special books are. And it will be important for children to have extra reading materials during the long winter break from school, Steinmetz said.
“We really want to give kids that new-book experience,” she said.
Founded in 2013, the nonprofit Madison Reading Project has not slowed down during the pandemic. In fact, it’s been distributing more books than ever this year — often through neighborhood community centers, preschools and out-of-school youth programs, and at sites such as food-distribution events. The organization has converted its Big Red Reading Bus — normally a sort of roving bookstore where children can come on board and pick out a free book to take home — to a delivery vehicle for now, Steinmetz said.
In 2019, the Madison Reading Project distributed 45,000 books to children and youths up to age 18. As of mid-November this year, the organization had already given out 52,000 books. With the expected 10,000 children to be served by the Empty Stocking Club, “I think we’re going to pass the 60,000 mark this year,” Steinmetz said.
To deal with the rise in demand, the Madison Reading Project has launched its first Community Book Drive, running through Dec. 15. Community members can donate books or cash, order specific books for the book drive online, host a virtual book drive, or find other ways to help at www.madisonreadingproject.com/communitybookdrive. Books in Spanish as well as English are in great demand, Steinmetz said.
The books will add another dimension to an already-busy Empty Stocking operation. Last year the Empty Stocking Club gave out some 10,000 toys to about 3,200 families, with the help of 475 volunteers. Even more volunteers will be needed this year.
The Empty Stocking Club is putting safeguards in place to comply with the new Dane County emergency order due to COVID-19, said executive director Lynn Wood. Since Empty Stocking is classified as a retail operation, it will run at 50 percent capacity per county guidelines. Many volunteers are still needed during the week of Dec. 7-11 to help unload and sort toys, but they will have to adhere to strict safety protocols, such as social distancing and mask requirements, she said.
The Empty Stocking Club relies heavily on the volunteer help of individuals and family groups, plus volunteers from area businesses, Girl Scout troops, Scouts, and other clubs and service organizations. Families or households can work together as an individual unit, Wood said.
Set-up will begin in the Exhibition Hall at Alliant Energy Center on Dec. 7, and behind-the-scenes work will run Dec. 8-11. Volunteers can sign up for shifts at www.emptystockingclub.com.
How to volunteer, apply, donate
To volunteer, to apply for the Empty Stocking Club or to make a donation by credit card, please visit www.emptystockingclub.com.
Donations can also be mailed using the convenient envelope included in today’s newspaper, or by sending your check to: Empty Stocking Club c/o the Wisconsin State Journal, P.O. Box 8056, Madison, WI 53708. The State Journal publishes all names of Empty Stocking Club donors in the newspaper to thank them for their support.
Nonprofits and social service organizations serving clients who might qualify for Empty Stocking Club can reach executive director Lynn Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.