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Sharing Tree provides gifts for thousands

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Summerfield residents who are members of Clipped Wings are part of Washington Square tradition


BARBARA SHERMAN - Sharon Wilcox (left), Barbara Lance and Karen Steinle are all members of United Airlines' Clipped Wings organization that started the Washington Square Sharing Tree 31 years ago; Lance is one of the program's founders.One of the most heart-warming holiday traditions in the metro area is the Sharing Tree at Washington Square, and three Summerfield women are a big part of it.

Barbara Lance, Sharon Wilcox and Karen Steinle are all former United Airlines stewardesses (in the days before they were called flight attendants) who joined Clipped Wings after retiring.

In the early days of commercial flying, stewardesses, who wore the "wings" of United Airlines, not only had to wear high heels on the job but they had to give up both flying and their wings when they got married, according to the Clipped Wings website.

"In 1941, former stewardess Jackie Jos Ceaser formed a club (Clipped Wings) in Chicago to maintain her airline friendships and to help others less fortunate," the website states. "In 1978, membership was extended to all online flight attendants. Today Clipped Wings is a national organization composed of 35 chapters across the country and open to all former, retired and current United and Capital Airlines (and Continental) flight attendants" with the mission of working for the benefit of people with developmental disabilities.

"In the early '80s, the Portland chapter had been coordinating the decorating of trees at Washington Square," Lance said. "The Square became aware of other malls around the country offering sharing trees and asked Clipped Wings if they would be interested initiating a sharing tree for Washington Square.

"Mary Lou Schiedt, the first coordinator of the tree, brought her Clipped Wings chapter aboard, and a tradition began. That was 31 years ago. In the beginning, Clipped Wingers arrived every morning before the mall opened, sorted the gifts according to agencies and delivered them. It took a lot of car trunks, and on occasion a truck had to be rented."

The Washington Square Sharing Tree continues to this day, and Clipped Wings still coordinates it "but with much needed help from the agencies who are the beneficiaries of this charitable endeavor," Lance said.

This year, 10 agencies have tags on the tree: The SCOTTY Foundation to benefit Washington County foster children, Janus Youth Program, Clackamas County SS/DD, Albertina Kerr Center, Imagine Possibilities, The ARC of Multnomah/Clackamas, Lifeworks Northwest, Community Action-Healthy Start, OHDC-Young Parent Program and the Salvation Army.

The tree goes up the weekend before Thanksgiving and closes on Christmas Eve, and each year there are about 3,500 gift requests with a suggested price of about $50.

"Approximately 80 percent of these requests are filled and delivered," Lance said. "The generosity of people is most gratifying, and many go beyond the request. One year a young single mom needed a car, and by golly, that request was filled. Some requests are as simple as a new sweatshirt or a warm jacket.

"There are families who have made a trip to the tree a Christmas tradition. Children whose parents brought them to the tree 30 years ago to pick a tag are now parents bringing their children to the tree. It is not unusual to see parents explaining to their children about people in need and this is a way they can help."

Lance has been a member of Clipped Wings for 44 years and is a founding member of the Washington Square Sharing Tree program. She was joined at the tree Dec. 1 by Steinle, who has been a member for 25 years, and Wilcox, who is fairly new to the chapter.

Lance's job that morning was to arrive before the mall opened and take all the presents that had been donated the day before, while Steinle and Wilcox were the volunteers for the first shift.

"I'm back in the Portland chapter after being in the Seattle chapter (of Clipped Wings)," Steinle explained. "This is my second year being back. The Sharing Tree has become such a tradition, and it is great that kids who would not get something for Christmas will get something."

Lance, Wilcox and Steinle were amazed that morning when a World War II veteran took a girl's gift tag off the tree and returned with a pink bicycle all decked out with streamers and a matching backpack. He was surprised when he strolled by later that the ladies remembered him!

Wilcox, who is in her second year volunteering at the tree, explained that volunteers are at the tree all the time the mall is open, which during the holidays goes from early in the morning to late at night.

"We get a lot of people Christmas Eve," she said. "One lady came at the last minute and said she always participated and grabbed a bunch of tags. She returned with a lot of first-class gifts, all from Nordstrom."

Lance noted, "People are so busy at this time of year that this is an easy way for them to do something."

There are many tags on the tree from caseworkers asking for gifts for their clients, according to Lance. "The caseworkers have thanked us so many times because they have something to give their clients," she said.

In years past, gift-givers would also wrap their purchased presents before returning them, but now they must be unwrapped. However, one ritual that has not changed is that thousands of felt hearts (to which the printed gift requests are glued) must be hand-cut every year.

"I had to buy a new pair of scissors," Wilcox said, and Lance added that Campfire Girls helped out.

"Sometimes people will just give us money and say they don't have time to shop," Lance said. "When we get a chance, we will go to a nearby store and buy the gifts. It happens more often later in the season."

The Portland Clipped Wings chapter was recognized at the 2016 national convention in San Diego for contributing the most volunteer hours to help people with developmental disabilities of any chapter in the country.

"The hours count for anything members do to help people with developmental disabilities, not just what they do for Clipped Wings," Wilcox said.

As the women were talking, Lance looked at a tag on the tree that was a request from a 62-year-old man with disabilities who only wanted a metal water bottle like a Thermos.

"I'm taking this one," Lance said. "I always take at least seven tags for my seven grandkids. I tell them they're not getting quite as much from us because part of their gift is going to help other people."

At the table by the tree was a scrapbook filled with photos of past years' Sharing Trees and many from-the-heart thank you notes.

Some of the notes from caseworkers are below:

"For some of my clients, these were the only presents they received for Christmas."

"You should see our clients' faces light up when they get their presents."

"One family said, 'We'll have a Christmas after all.'"

"This program is a dream come true literally for these clients. The joy and smiles go beyond anything else."

"Dear Santa, Thank you for the clothes for my 2-year-old and 1-year-old. They were greatly appreciated. From a teen mom."

"Dear Clipped Wings Association, Thank you for the biking helmet and the books. Did you have a good Christmas? I hope so. It is nice of you to contribute the different presents to the Big Brother organization."

"Dear Santa's helper, Thank you for the watch. I love it very much."

Rosalie Betschart is now the Washington Square Sharing Tree coordinator.

"Although these women are 31 years older than when they began this endeavor, they plan on continuing one way or another… with a little bit of help from their friends," Lance said. "It's a pretty good system."