Volunteers shuffled through an assembly line while stuffing socks with candy canes, travel-size soaps, granola bars and plastic army men at American Legion Post 27 on Saturday morning.
The project, called “Santa Socks,” is aimed at spreading holiday cheer to local veterans through stuffed stockings or rather, socks.
Susan Campbell Reneau, with United Veteran’s Council of Missoula and Ravalli counties, started Santa Socks in 2008. During the first year, volunteers gave out about 150 pairs of socks. This year, they’re at about 700 pairs.
Susan directed volunteers on Saturday while sporting reindeer ears, jewelry featuring ornament-like beads, Santa print leggings, and a sweater resembling a Mrs. Claus get-up.
Reneau said the project is one of many ways she tries to stay involved in the veterans community. Her father was a Marine and her husband, Jack, is a Vietnam veteran. Susan said Santa Socks is her way of honoring both her father and the veteran community.
“Even though everyone says that they support veterans, when it comes down to the dirty work of getting down there in the trenches and helping them, a lot of times they’re forgotten,” Reneau said, adding that the holidays can be an especially lonely time for some.
Santa Socks volunteers, or “elves” as Susan refers to them, will deliver the socks to veterans at various nursing homes and other locations in and near Missoula.
The elves dress up in one of Reneau's many elaborate Christmas-themed hats to deliver the socks. Santa accompanies the elves to hand out the socks and sing songs like “Jingle Bells.”
Reneau said they also deliver to private homes and target homeless veterans through stops at places such as the Poverello Center and the Salvation Army Warming Center. Reneau also keeps spare pairs of Santa Socks in her car to give to veterans she runs into on the street.
The elves will also distribute more than 1,000 cards made by local students, including about 600 cards from students at Russell Elementary School, 400 that students at Washington Middle School are making on Monday, as well as some made by families who heard about the project.
As a new addition to the Santa Socks project, many veterans will receive knitted blankets and scarves made and donated by community members.
Joan Dodge, a Santa Socks volunteer and founder of Wraps for Vets, organized the knitting project after she attended a sock delivery and sang to vets.
“I was so impressed and I thought what can I do,” Dodge said. “I just kept asking people if they knit or crochet or quilt.”
Dodge was surprised and grateful for the donations that poured in, with about 400 hats and 400 blankets community members made throughout the year. Dodge said she was especially thankful for the 40 women and a man at Martha’s Ministry who did the bulk of the knitting.
On Saturday, volunteers stuffed the socks with various trinkets purchased with money donated by a plethora of sponsors.
As he removed socks from their packaging and laid them on the table, Jack Reneau said Santa Socks is an important way for him to remind other veterans that they aren’t forgotten.
Jack and Susan both recalled a prior visit to a nursing home where they handed a pair of socks to a Marine who had been in a wheelchair for years.
“When he received socks from two younger Marines, he rose out of his wheelchair and started singing the Marine Corps Hymn and then he said, ‘This means more to me than the medals I received in Iwo Jima.’ Every year we have experiences like that,” Susan said.
Jack said the project has helped him develop relationships with local veterans, including one who has about 20 plastic army men lined up in his room from various visits.
“There’s some we see every year where we’re their only visitor for the whole year,” he said, noting that they visit a couple times each year to deliver various gifts including Valentine’s Day cards.
“Now that we’ve been doing it a number of years, they look forward to us coming,” he said. “It makes their Christmas and it makes ours too.”