Every holiday season since 1968, Detroit Lakes' Damien Society has been doing its part to spread the warmth of Christmas spirit to those in need, by hosting its annual Mitten Tree Project.

Right around Thanksgiving time, Christmas trees adorned with red "Damien Mitten Tree" signs begin popping up at local businesses, restaurants, healthcare clinics and other service agencies.

Bare at first, the trees quickly become festooned not with garlands, lights and ornaments, but with mittens, gloves, hats and scarves in every shape, size and color imaginable.

As the trees begin popping up, Damien Society members start asking local residents to begin filling those trees with cold weather outerwear, to help keep those in need a little warmer through the holiday season, and beyond.

"This is year 51," said Damien Society member Michelle Norby, noting that the 50th anniversary of the Mitten Tree Project in 2018 was "a record-setting year" in terms of both donations and the number of people they were able to help.

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Mittens, gloves, hats and scarves were distributed to schools throughout Detroit Lakes, including both Roosevelt and Rossman elementaries as well as the middle school, high school and Holy Rosary, not to mention the Lakes Crisis & Resource Center, Boys & Girls Club, and Mahube Head Start.

Their reach also extended beyond Detroit Lakes, Norby added, as some donations were distributed to elementary schools in Audubon and Frazee, the Circle of Life Academy in White Earth, and Head Start programs in both Callaway and White Earth. Some donations went to adults in need as well, she said, including residents of both the Emmanuel and Oak Crossing nursing homes, and emergency room patients at Essentia Health St. Mary's who were admitted without warm clothing.

"We were only able to do so much because of the generosity of our community," she added.

Once the trees go up, donations will be accepted through Dec. 18, when they will be picked up for distribution — just in time for the holidays. Hats, scarves, mittens and gloves of all sizes — both handmade and newly purchased — are accepted, Norby added, but donations should be both warm and waterproof.

Cash donations are also more than welcome, Norby said, as they enable the Damiens to make last-minute purchases to fill specific, requested needs.

"Just leave the envelope on the tree, or drop it off at the front desk (of the participating business or agency)," she said.

Checks can be made out to the Damien Society and mailed to them at P.O. Box 514, Detroit Lakes, MN 56502, or for those who would prefer to give their donation in person, they can contact Norby at 218-234-5411 to make arrangements.

A total of 15 trees will go up this year, Norby added. Besides the lobbies of five local banks — Bell State, Bremer, First Security, Midwest and Wells Fargo — the trees can be found in the following locations: Central Market, Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center, Detroit Lakes Public Library, Detroit Lakes Newspapers, Holiday Inn, La Barista, Lakeshirts, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Sanford Clinic and the Essentia Health St. Mary’s hospital cafeteria.

"The Detroit Lakes Breakfast Rotary Club is sponsoring the tree at Holiday Inn this year," Norby added.

This display of handcrafted items from the Detroit Lakes Public Library's crochet and knitting groups will be donated and hung on the library's Damien Mitten Tree as soon as the tree is up and ready to begin receiving donations. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)
This display of handcrafted items from the Detroit Lakes Public Library's crochet and knitting groups will be donated and hung on the library's Damien Mitten Tree as soon as the tree is up and ready to begin receiving donations. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)

How it all began

The Damien Mitten Tree Project was the brainchild of the late Gen Kwako, a longtime Damien Society member who died 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: In that first year, just two trees were set up at local banks, with about 100 pairs of mittens collected. Today, participation has grown to nearly 20 trees and well over 1,000 items collected — including not just mittens but gloves, scarves and hats as well.

In this photo from the Dec. 16, 1968 edition of the Detroit Lakes Tribune, Damien committee members are seen working on the mitten tree at the Detroit State Bank. Pictured are (left to right): Mrs. Robert Watson, chairwoman, and Mrs. Sigwel Wood, both kneeling; and standing, Mrs. Peter Schroeder and Mrs. Ed Hurley. (Tribune file photo)
In this photo from the Dec. 16, 1968 edition of the Detroit Lakes Tribune, Damien committee members are seen working on the mitten tree at the Detroit State Bank. Pictured are (left to right): Mrs. Robert Watson, chairwoman, and Mrs. Sigwel Wood, both kneeling; and standing, Mrs. Peter Schroeder and Mrs. Ed Hurley. (Tribune file photo)