It's been a holiday tradition since 1968 for Detroit Lakes' Damien Society, who will once again be accepting donations for their annual Mitten Tree project from now through Monday, Dec. 20.

Starting this week, Christmas trees adorned with red "Damien Mitten Tree" signs have already begun popping up at local businesses, restaurants, schools and other public locations — and organizers are hoping that the trees will quickly become filled with mittens, gloves, hats and scarves of every size, shape and color imaginable.

Without the limitations posed by COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that limited tree locations in 2020, a total of 17 venues have been chosen to host trees this holiday season, including the following: Bremer, Midwest, First Security and Bell State bank offices; Detroit Lakes Newspapers; Essentia Health St. Mary's hospital cafeteria; Sanford Health; Central Market; Holiday Inn (this tree is sponsored by the Detroit Lakes Breakfast Rotary); La Barista (in the Washington Square Mall); the Detroit Lakes Public Library; Lakeshirts; Detroit Lakes United Methodist Church; Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center; Minnesota Pollution Control Agency; and both Rossman and Roosevelt Elementary schools.

"The Kiwanis are also taking us on as a special project for the second straight year," said project chairwoman Cindy Fritz.

The mitten tree project has always brought in an outpouring of support from the community, she added — and last year, despite the pandemic limiting the trees to just nine locations, that generosity held true.

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"We only had nine trees last year, but we collected about 50-60 more mittens than in 2019," Fritz said. We have such a giving community."

Donations can include mittens, gloves, hats and scarves, either of the homemade or store-bought variety, and all sizes are welcome, as some get distributed to adults as well as children. The only requirement is that the submitted outerwear be both warm and as waterproof as possible, Fritz said.

Cash donations are also more than welcome, she added, 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 also 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 Fritz at 218-849-6447 to make arrangements.

Once the donations have been collected on Monday, Dec. 20 — just in time for the holidays — they will be 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 extends beyond Detroit Lakes, Fritz said, as some donations are distributed to elementary schools in Audubon, Frazee and Ogema, the Circle of Life Academy in White Earth, and Head Start programs in both Callaway and White Earth. Some donations go to adults in need as well, she said, including residents of both local nursing homes, and emergency room patients at Essentia Health St. Mary's who are admitted without warm clothing. Donations also go out to the Becker County Fire Project and The Refuge/Compassion House, Fritz added.

How the Damien Mitten Tree project 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.

Back in 1966, 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.

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)

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. At its peak, the project has included nearly 20 trees and well over 1,000 items collected.