ITHACA, N.Y. –– 30 years ago, Bill Alberta was looking for an alternative to the office gift exchange.

Instead of buying each other $5 gifts, people pooled their money and purchased new clothing and toys for five needy children at Enfield Elementary School.

Bill, along with Sherry, his wife, has been nurturing the program ever since. And the program has grown tremendously in those 30 years. In 2018, the Elves Program sponsored 1,168 children in 34 area schools. This year they are looking to help children in 38 schools.

The program works by getting nurses and social workers to identify the children who are in greatest need. They use a form to provide information on children who may need to be sponsored and give the forms to ‘Elf Leaders’. Leaders then distribute the profiles to individuals, families or groups who want to sponsor a child. Sponsors, otherwise known as the ‘Elves’, purchase items

“I’ve tried to keep it as simple as possible,” CEO (Chief Elf Officer) and founder, Bill Alberta said.

There is a purchasing checklist for the Elves that includes socks, underwear, a new outfit, pajamas, a hat and gloves, and a toy. All gifts are new and the cost is about $125 per child. Elf Leaders deliver the bags of gifts to the school where they are picked up by parents.

“Some come to school with sneakers in the snow and no underwear. The school contacts us, and tells us sad stories,” Alberta said. “We’re helping some.”

According to the 2019 report from the New York State Community Action Association, the poverty rate for Tompkins County is 20.36% –– which means a lot of families have to go without during the holiday season.

“If you think about one in five families living in poverty, that’s a very sad statistic, the children naturally suffer for that,” Alberta said. “It’s a tremendous need, and sometimes I think that living in Ithaca we’re in kind of a bubble. We don’t necessarily recognize how tough it is for so many people. The elves program doesn’t solve those problems, but it adds a bright spot to the winter season.”

He’s amazed at how much the program has grown over the years. In the winter season, Alberta works nearly full-time running the program.

“I have 3000 people involved. So it takes a lot of coordination but I love doing it. It’s a great pleasure. It’s easier now that I’m retired and every year it gets bigger it seems, and of course every year I’m older and have to work a little harder, but it works out,” Alberta said. “I’ll be 74 next month and hopefully I’ll be around a long while to be the chief organizer the CEO. But you never know when it’s not me it’ll be another younger person who’s very, very involved in the program already.”

The Elves Program has now expanded to include a summer backpack program and a winter blanket program. Elves now provide more than 1,000 new backpacks to elementary children every summer, which also includes a school supplies checklist. And additionally each winter, Elves produce at least 300 warm, polar fleece blankets to deliver to participating schools.

Since the program’s inception in 1989, Alberta has made a promise to make sure that every penny spent goes directly to the children he serves. Everyone contributes their time on a completely volunteer basis. When asked why the program hasn’t applied for non-profit status, Alberta said it was against their mission.

 “We’re not a 501(c)3, rather purposely. It just involves more paperwork and involves money,” he said. “And I lose my pledge that we don’t spend a penny on anything but the children and occasionally a person will say ‘boy, I could donate if you were a registered nonprofit.’ I explain why we’re not. And I point out that sure you can’t claim it on your income tax, I guess, but you do know that every penny counts, and you’re not wasting any money when you donate.”

You can get involved by sponsoring a child, helping to sponsor one or by making a donation. Cash donations can be given directly to any of the Elf Leaders listed on the website. That site also has information on how to get involved with the other Elves programs. Checks made payable to “The Elves” should be sent to Bill Alberta, 751 Elm Street Ext., Ithaca or to Maureen Brull through campus mail at 395 Pine Tree Road, Suite 102.

Featured image courtesy of the Elves Program. 

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com