Uriel Long, 1, lifts up a pair of boots at the Reformer Christmas Stocking. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Uriel Long, 1, lifts up a pair of boots at the Reformer Christmas Stocking. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Friday November 23, 2012

There are a lot of ways to feel the want of things you need, especially when you're a kid.

Imagine a 5-year-old boy who loves to run, who needs to blast out the back door and tear up the yard or he's going to go bananas inside (and take his mother with him) - but there's six inches of slushy thick snow on the ground, and he has no snow pants or winter boots.

Or the sensible 12-year-old girl who knows there's nothing wrong with her sister's handme- downs, who doesn't really care about clothes, and who also knows that the old blue coat leaves two inches of wrist and two of waist bare to the cold, and looks nothing like her friends' long, glossy jackets that sound a sleek shir-shir-shir whenever the girls swing their arms.

It's okay, but she never stops feeling the difference. Or the cold.

Or the 8-year-old kid, sensitive and quiet, who watches his father's face draw tight at the register of the clothing store, who has learned not to ask for treats at the supermarket, who doesn't say anything when his mom frets at how his boots chafe his toes and heels, who has figured out how he can still climb the slick jungle gym in those too-small boots during morning recess. The best thing he can do, he understands, is perfect the art of becoming invisible.

Imagine, then, on a November afternoon, each of these kids entering a room filled with shelves of boots and racks of coats, stacks of hand knit mittens and piles of hand knit hats. Everything is new. Everything is free. An adult in a red apron steps up. 'Hello,' he says, shaking each little one's hand. 'Welcome! Thank you for coming to the Christmas Stocking. Now let's go shopping!' The grown-up leads the kids with their moms or dads through the aisles, where they pick out a winter jacket, snow boots, hat and mittens, and snow pants for younger children. The grown-up makes sure everything will fit for the coming season. If anything doesn't, another grown-up makes a quick run to the store to find something that will.

Some kids rush forward. Some announce their names. Some hang close to their parents' legs. Some sense their parents' conflicted hesitation at needing help to provide for their family. Some kids have been here before and sit right down on the floor to try on boots.

One boy, 9 or 10, with beautiful reddish hair, puts on a jacket. He looks at the red-aproned grown-up helping him.

'You look glorious,' she tells him.

'Yes,' he says. He smiles.

A girl poses in front of a mirror in a purple coat with a fur-trimmed hood. 'I feel like a model here,' she says proudly, as she tries on three more to find the one that best matches her new boots.

A 6-year-old boy comes in with snow on his hair, snow melting into his t-shirt-clad shoulders, his damp sneakers flopping around his bare feet. Soon he's wearing a jacket, snow pants, and boots. A volunteer slides a fleecelined knit cap on his head. He leaves smiling.

All the 600-plus families who come to the Christmas Stocking each year are financially eligible for the help; earlier in the fall they applied to receive the winter outerwear through social service agencies and their children's schools.

Their stories run from unemployment to fires and floods to illness to the costs of higher education to the indifferent dips and swings of the economy. But all that matters here is that their children need warm clothes. The Reformer Christmas Stocking, sponsored by the Brattleboro Reformer, has distributed winter outerwear to families in Windham County and nearby New Hampshire towns since 1937.

That first year, the project collected $280 and had funds left over to help a little girl get some much needed dental work.

This year, the Stocking raised $90,000 from individuals, groups, businesses, schools and organizations in the community. All of the money goes to purchasing the clothes.

The fundraising effort begins after Thanksgiving.

It usually ends in late December or early January, though not without perennial worry on the part of the 17 Stocking Committee members, knowing as they do how constant is the need and how stretched are the community's wallets.

For 76 years, though, Windham County and its New Hampshire neighbors have come through for these kids. Many give money; more than 100 volunteer to help unload and organize shipments of new clothes. Others don the red aprons and happily and humbly shepherd families through the store site on distribution days. Still more knit the gloves and caps, with one Putney resident donating 156 pairs of mittens this year.

It's these great bright piles of clothes that awe the kids - and their parents.

'Thank you,' the parents say. 'I can't believe this is happening. This is awesome. I can't believe it's all new. This is an incredible community.' Often, a child will stop as the family is about to leave. She'll turn to the grown-up in the red apron, the one who helped her choose her new coat and boots.

'We didn't pay anything!' she'll cry.

The grown-up will kneel down and look her in the eye.

'When you're shopping here, you don't have to pay,' he'll say. 'You have come to get the things you need. Everything is already paid for.' For more information about the Reformer Christmas Stocking, visit www.reformer.com/christmasstocking.

To contribute to the 2013 Reformer Christmas Stocking, mail donations to Reformer Christmas Stocking, P.O. Box 703, Brattleboro, VT 05302-0703.

You can also pay online with PayPal at www.reformer.com/christmasstocking.