Every holiday season for the past five decades, an increasing number of local businesses and service organizations have hosted a uniquely decorated Christmas tree - bare at first, the trees quickly become festooned not with garlands and ornaments, but mittens, gloves, hats and scarves in every shape, size and color.

Yes, the Damien Mitten Tree Project is celebrating its 50th anniversary this holiday season, and once again, the Damien Society is asking local residents to begin filling those trees with cold weather outerwear, to help keep those in need a little warmer this holiday season.

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"The trees are going up this week," says Damien Society member Michelle Norby. "We'll keep them up until about Dec. 18, when we start collecting the donations for distribution - just in time for the holidays.

"A total of 18 trees are going up this year," Norby said, at local businesses, schools and other service agencies.

Besides the lobbies of all six local banks - American National, Bell State, Bremer, First Security, Midwest and Wells Fargo - the trees can be found in the following locations: Rossman and Roosevelt elementary schools, Central Market, Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center, Detroit Lakes Public Library, Detroit Lakes Newspapers, La Barista, Lakeshirts, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Sanford Clinic and the Essentia Health St. Mary's hospital cafeteria.

Donations can be left on the trees at any time between now and Dec. 18, Norby said. Hats, scarves, mittens and gloves - both handmade and newly purchased - are accepted, along with the occasional cash donation.

Cash donations are more than welcome, Norby said, as they enable the Damiens to make last-minute purchases to fill specific, requested needs. Checks can be made out to the Damien Society, P.O. Box 514, Detroit Lakes MN 56502.

All sizes of hats, scarves, gloves and mittens are also appreciated, she added - but donations should be both warm, and waterproof.

A look back at the project's beginnings

The Damien Mitten Tree Project was the brainchild of the late Gen Kwako, a longtime Damien Society member who passed away in 2006, at age 84.

Kwako was contacted by a local school bus driver, who had noticed that several kids were getting on his bus without any mittens to keep their hands warm during the cold winter months. She, with the help of her fellow Damiens, organized the first mitten tree drive.

The project has come a long way since its early days, Norby noted: Since that first year, where just two trees were set up at local banks, with about 100 pairs of mittens collected, it has grown to nearly 20 trees and well over 1,000 items collected - including not just mittens but gloves, scarves and hats as well.

Recipients of the donations include not just elementary, middle and high school students throughout Becker County, but also kids attending Head Start preschool classes, the Boys & Girls Club and more. Some adults in need also receive winter wear donations, Norby said, including clients and residents of the Lakes Crisis & Resource Center, Oak Crossing Senior Living and the Compassion House.

She added that besides those hosting trees, the Damiens would like to thank the community for continuing to support the mitten tree project.

"We could not do this without the generosity of the residents of this community," Norby added. "They are the ones who put these donations on the trees."