Elves return to Vashon, but with a different mission

This weekend Islanders who drive through Vashon’s main intersection will notice some familiar faces: volunteers in elf outfits, complete with striped socks and pointy ears, collecting money from drivers who pass by.

Those who pay close attention, though, will notice that this winter the elves have changed their game a little. Buttons on their chests show they are no longer the Food Bank Elves but the Island Elves. And signs on the side of the road tell drivers they’re now collecting for Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS), not the food bank.

“(The food bank’s) donations are doing fine, and we thought we could help another agency,” said head elf Bernie O’Malley.

Indeed, Islander Rex Stratton gave some money to the elves the first weekend they were out this month, not even noticing, he said, that they’d switched charities. “I’m so used to seeing them raising money for the food bank,” he said.

Though the elves have become linked with the food bank, O’Malley pointed out that none of them were food bank volunteers when they began the effort three years ago.

“We just started out as elves and took up the food bank cause. … We’re just freelance elves,” he said with a laugh.

The fundraiser began in the winter of 2008, when the food bank saw a sudden surge in need due to the recession. O’Malley, owner of East West Produce, the fresh food market sometimes in front of The Hardware Store Restaurant, had donated produce to the food bank and knew several people who used it; he’d also read newspaper articles about its struggles to make ends meet and wanted to help out.

He and a friend, Tag Gornall, devised a way to combine what they considered two successful fundraisers — firefighters collecting money from drivers and Salvation Army volunteers ringing bells outside stores. They gathered about a dozen of their friends, many of them well-known Islanders, who agreed to ring bells at the intersection and embraced the eye-catching elf costumes. Now, drive-by donations at the four-way stop average a few dollars, O’Malley said, but range from 25 cents to several hundred dollars. One year a man pulled up and handed an elf a $1,000 check.

“It’s successful for a couple reasons,” O’Malley said. “It’s small entertainment, it builds community spirit, and it’s fun.”

Yvonne Pitrof, director of the Vashon Maury Community Food Bank, said the elves brought in nearly $20,000 each year for the food bank, funds she and her staff greatly appreciated.

“The elves have always been incredibly helpful,” she said.

However, O’Malley added that it’s not all about the money for the elves, it’s also about bringing to light a charity’s mission on the Island. He explained that when they began the fundraiser they set three goals: to raise funds for the food bank, raise awareness of the nonprofit and educate Islanders about what it does with informative signs. He believes that Islander now know more about the food bank than they did three years ago, in part because of the elves.

“We think after three years we did well with our three goals,” he said. “We thought we should try to see if we could do that for another organization.”

Gornall agreed.

“There are a lot of good service groups on the Island,” he said. “They all need some attention and some help. This year we’re sort of sponsoring this one; next year we may sponsor someone else.”

Last spring some food bank volunteers raised concerns about what they saw as an inadequate amount of protein-rich food being offered to clients as well as the growing size of the food bank’s cash reserves. The food bank hired a consultant to examine the volunteers’ complaints. While the reserve has grown larger, according to recent tax returns, the food bank has beefed up its food offerings.

Gornall, however, said volunteer frustrations from earlier in the year didn’t play into the elves’ decision and that he personally has no qualms with the food bank.

“They’re still a good organization and the work they do still needs to get done. ... The food bank still holds a nice place in my heart,” he said.

Pitrof said that she understands the elves’ decision. However, she’s unsure how the loss of the elves’ donation will affect the food bank’s budget, as they are just entering their fundraising season. Over half of the $200,000 in cash donations they need each year, she explained, comes in during November and December.

“It’s hard to say how much of an impact it will have or not,” she said.

Pitrof said that although need at the food bank has dropped slightly since the surge in 2008, it is still very high. Lines are so long on Wednesdays, she noted, that they are considering opening another day each week.

“We can use all the help we can get,” she said.

She added she’s also paying close attention to Olympia as the state legislature enters a special session to make budget cuts that could affect the food bank’s small amount of state funding or put more people in the food bank’s lines.

“At this point, we’re really grateful for all (the elves) have done,” she said. “We’ll wait and see how we end up this year.”

Gornall said the elves decided to support VYFS because, like the food bank, it provides essential social services and reaches about 10 percent of the Island.

Ken Maaz, director of VYFS, was surprised but thrilled that the elves have decided to take on the organization as a cause this year, saying it’s in a tough financial spot right now.

VYFS has served more clients this year than ever and hasn’t been able to meet the increased need with fundraising. Maaz, who will be an elf himself this year, said the extra donations may save them from eating into their reserves.

“We have not been able to raise as much money as we’ve had to spend,” Maaz said. “This is a really good thing to have their help, because we really need it.”

O’Malley said Islanders seem to be just as willing to support VYFS as the food bank, as the first weekend of donations was on track with that of past years.

As for the possible confusion over the change, O’Malley said a sign on the side of the road makes it clear the fundraiser is for VYFS, and the elves placed an ad in The Beachcomber to publicize the fundraiser. So far they’ve received one check written to the food bank, and they plan to pass it along.

Stratton, who gave to the elves without realizing the change, said he didn’t mind.

“If they were raising money for VYFS, I still would have given them money,” he said. “With those guys it doesn’t matter because you know it’s going to a good purpose.”


The Island Elves will collect money for VYFS at the main intersection in town two more weekends this year. They will be out from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Dec. 2,3, 16 and 17.


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