Editor’s Note: This story was written by and republished with the permission of Just Ithaca, a magazine produced by the students of the Advanced Multimedia Journalism class at the Roy H. Park School of Communications, Ithaca College.

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This year will mark the 25th anniversary of the Cornell University Elves Program, a holiday donation program that supplies clothing and toys to local children who are underprivileged.

In 1989, program founder and “Elf Organizer” Bill Alberta started the program to help children at a local elementary school. It initially helped 14 children; the program now serves 33 schools and roughly 1,000 children each holiday season throughout the surrounding Ithaca area. He explained that, although it’s a holiday-themed program, it does not have any religious affiliation and serves children of all religious denominations.

The program has remained largely consistent over the past several years. Alberta is proud of its simplicity and efficiency. The program has, however, evolved into more of a team-building activity for the “elves,” he explained.

Photo courtesy of the Cornell Elves Program

Local office groups often contribute and parents sometimes involve their children in the donation process in order to teach them about the value of community service.

“Every kid we help is a very, very needy kid. We ask for the neediest of the needy,” he said.

The program strives to brighten the holiday season, he said, and says that every bit of assistance helps. “We’re not solving the situations, the sad environments in which so many of them live, but we are helping in that way,” Alberta said.

“It’s important to have communities being supportive and gathering resources and changing the distribution of resources, in some way making it possible for people to have basic things,” Alicia Swords, who has been working with Poverty Initiative for about a decade, said. Poverty Initiative is a national network of organizations led by the poor, which is dedicated to building a movement to end poverty.

Swords believes that solutions like this do not get at the root causes of poverty, which are systemic or structural. “We can’t expect to have quick fixes to poverty.”

According to Brigid Beachler, an “Elf Leader” at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School, “It doesn’t change the structure of inequality, it doesn’t alleviate poverty. But, for a child to be able to go to school after their winter break and have a new set of clothes and maybe a new game or toy they can share with their friends, I think that’s really meaningful — and to allow them to feel like they’re not different.”


Beachler has been a program leader since 1999, when she noticed that the elementary school was not part of the program. Her interest in the program was rooted in the idea that all children should feel good about themselves, regardless of their situation–and especially during the holiday season.

She explained that she likes how the program helps those in need but also provides them with a sense of anonymity. “Allowing the families to have dignity in the process is really important to me,” she said.

Many of the children lack daily necessities such as socks and underwear, as well as season-appropriate clothing such as coats and boots.

“It’s less about getting them the newest electronic or something like that, it’s more about the real need for clothing and these basic necessities,” she explained.

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Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.