BRATTLEBORO -- There may, in fact, be many signs that the economy finally is improving.

But organizers of the annual Reformer Christmas Stocking program aren't seeing those signs. In fact, staffers at local schools who help direct families toward the Stocking's free winter clothing say there are more and more families that require such assistance.

"I see it as a really, really critical service," said Carole Rayl, guidance counselor at Vernon Elementary School. "Every year, it is actually going up -- the need is absolutely growing."

The Stocking initiative matches children in need with free winter outerwear such as coats, boots, hats and mittens. This year, more than 1,330 kids from 619 area families were outfitted in early November.

The program is in the midst of its annual holiday-season fund-raiser, with the goal once again set at $90,000.

And, in the program's 77th year, administrators are giving a nod to the school staffers -- counselors, nurses and others -- who are on the front lines in the battle to keep all of their students well-fed and properly clothed. Those staff members are the first to process applications for the Stocking program each year, and they also help ensure that those who are eligible get the winter wear they need.

"They know the families. They know the children," said Betty Elwell, Reformer Christmas Stocking chairwoman.

"We know that it takes a lot of time away from their designated work, but we really couldn't do it without them," Elwell added. "They're wonderful to work with."

There are about 65 Stocking contacts at local social-service agencies and schools. Among them is Deborah Leggott, principal at Townshend Elementary School. She sends out Stocking applications to each of the school's families who are eligible for free or reduced school meals. That's about half of Townshend's students.

"The free and reduced (meal) population has increased, so this has increased, too," Leggott said of the number of Stocking applications she submits.

In addition to returning completed applications to those who run the Stocking program, Leggott also offers help -- if it is needed -- in setting up appointments for Townshend families to pick up their clothing.

"I think it's just an absolutely beautiful program that really targets the authentically needy in our schools," Leggott said.

She has noticed some of her students sporting Stocking-related outerwear.

"They're proud of them, because they're nice -- the quality is excellent," Leggott said.

Rayl has had the same experience in Vernon.

"I will have kids come in and say, ‘Look at my new jacket. It's pink. I really wanted pink,'" she said.

Rayl places an annual notice in a school newsletter, letting parents know that the Stocking program is happening. Sometimes, she also hears directly from a family.

"Parents will come and talk to me," she said. "There may be a parent who is in a particularly bad circumstance in a particular year."

Rayl notes that it's not just the Stocking program that provides winter clothing to kids: Schools also keep a stock of boots, hats and other items to help kids who have forgotten or lost such essentials -- as well as those students whose families cannot afford to purchase or replace those items.

She also points to other initiatives such as Toys for Tots.

"I think it's really important. It really makes a difference for a lot of families," Rayl said. "There are so many services ... without them, it would be a much colder winter for our children, and it would be a more meager holiday season for them."

At Hinsdale Elementary in Hinsdale, N.H., Cheryl Bachinski says donations for such programs have decreased while applications for assistance rise.

For the Stocking program, Bachinski, the school's nurse, sends out applications to all Hinsdale Elementary families.

"We'll see maybe 30 applications come back. I think I had 40 or 45 applications come back this year -- more than usual," she said.

"I think it's a wonderful program," Bachinski said. "When you look at the scope of what they are trying to do ... they, too, are being bombarded by applications that are on the rise."

The bottom line, she added, is that "kids are getting things they normally wouldn't have access to."

A Christmas Stocking donation form can be found in the Reformer daily. Forms can be sent to Reformer Christmas Stocking, P.O. Box 703, Brattleboro VT 05302-0703 or delivered to the Reformer office at 62 Black Mountain Road during regular business hours Monday through Friday.

Also, a link to donate via Pay Pal is available at www.reformer.com.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.