More than a decade ago Ida (Buzzy) Gardner wrote a story about a woman who brought small toys to young children on Martha's Vineyard. The Santa Claus Lady was her name, and as the story goes she "brought Christmas in tiny packages wrapped in odd pieces of paper tightly tied with bits of ribbon."
Now, more than a year after Mrs. Gardner's death, her family is keeping the tradition of the Santa Claus Lady alive through the Ida Gardner Memorial Fund. The money is used to buy toys for distribution through the Red Stocking Fund, the nonprofit organization that provides food and clothing to children of families in financial need.
"It's really important to my father to keep this going in my mother's name," said Gail Craig, Mrs. Gardner's daughter. The Gardner fund, now in its second year, is maintained through donations and the sale of Mrs. Gardner's paintings.
The Red Stocking Fund also hands out food vouchers for Thanksgiving and again in March, but its big push comes for the winter holidays. Its roots date to 1938, when Mrs. Harris M. Crist asked her friends to fill six red stockings with gifts for needy children.
Red Stocking holds benefit events throughout the year to support its work, including the annual chowder festival, scheduled for Dec. 19 in Edgartown. Earlier this month, the Vineyard Harley Riders raised $17,000 in their Toys for Tots Run.
The money is used strictly for clothing and food, said fund codirector Kerry Alley. Toy donations are accepted from other sources. And that is where the Gardner fund fills a need.
"She would beg, borrow and steal all the toys out of the businesses," recalled Mrs. Craig of her mother. "She would go to the A&P where they sold porcelain dolls and she would get those, if not for free then for a very reduced price."
Mrs. Gardner had many different occupations throughout her life on the Vineyard, working alternately as a telephone operator, dental assistant and librarian at the Tisbury School. She was also an artist, spending hours during the day painting impressionist landscapes in oils. And in 2003 she wrote and illustrated the Santa Claus Lady.
"She always loved Christmas," Mrs. Craig said.
Last year the Gardner fund raised about $2,000; this year the fund stands at $1,500. Mrs. Craig plans to tap the fund next week, when she travels off-Island to purchase toys for Red Stocking. On the wish list is everything from a pack of cards to scooters.
"I had a blast last year," Mrs. Craig said. "With two small kids I don't have a lot of extra time. It felt so good to know these kids were going to wake up and have at least one thing on their wish list under the tree."
More than 275 children from 160 families receive food and gifts through the Red Stocking Fund, and the list grows every year. Confidentiality is critical to the operation. Parents provide a list of their children's most needed clothing and hoped for toys; each child is then assigned an identification number that allows volunteers to match the right gift packages with the right people. Each package includes several major items of clothing, like a jacket or sweater. Also: pajamas, socks, underwear and mittens, four or five toys and a book donated by the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore.
Meanwhile, shoppers are already out at the stores with lists of sizes and clothing; several organizations and families have adopted entire families.
On Dec. 12 a group of volunteers will gather at Grace Church to begin wrapping, making sure that children waking up on Christmas morning find colorful packages adorned with ribbons and bows.
"It's so satisfying," said Mr. Alley. "These are people in need. Even sometimes you know that maybe the parents could do more but you can't visit the sins of the parents on the kids. We know the kids need clothes or they are going to be cold during the winter."
For more information call Kerry Alley at 508-693-2324 or Lorraine Clark at 508-693-0725. Checks in support of the Red Stocking Fund may be mailed to Barbara Silva, Treasurer, P.O. Box 74, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568. All donations made expressly in Mrs. Gardner's name will be used to buy toys for children in need.