Edith would be proud: Founder’s spirit lives on in annual gift giving to seniors

Even accounting for its recent pandemic-induced hiatus, Marbleheaders likely have at least some familiarity with the Edith Dodge Memorial Fund.

Founded as the “Holiday Elderly Fund” by the town’s first Council on Aging director, the Dodge Fund seeks to ensure that no Marbleheader over the age of 80 is forgotten while everyone around them is celebrating with family and friends.

In December, volunteers deliver gifts — boxes of cookies and bags of clementines — to those still living in town. Age is the only criteria to make the gift list. Financial circumstances have nothing to do with it.

People may also be aware that, since its inception, the massive mobilization of Marblehead mirth has been quarterbacked by strong, energetic older women, as others have risen to meet the standard Dodge herself set.

But until recently, Joan Cutler, 80, now in her 13th year as Dodge Fund president, knew little about Dodge’s life before she moved to Marblehead to be closer to her daughters.

That all changed a couple of years ago when, out of the blue, she got a message on social media from a stranger, passing along a story that had appeared in a local newspaper in Lackawanna, Pennsylvania, “the sixth in a series of seven articles on women in government,” on Aug. 15, 1952.

An article that appeared in a local newspaper in Lackawanna, Pennsylvania, in 1952 details Edith Dodge’s life before Marblehead, including as chief clerk for the Lackawanna Selective Service Board during World War II. COURTESY PHOTO

The story describes how Dodge had already been an active volunteer in her community — with her daughters’ Girl Scout troops, in her church and as the “guiding spirit” in the founding of Friendship House, a recreational center for underprivileged children, before she got her first job in local government as Lackawanna’s recreational director.

But “as war clouds gathered,” she accepted a far more challenging role as chief clerk for the Lackawanna Selective Service Board, where she served from 1940 through the end of World War II and beyond. The office closed briefly in 1947, but by the following year Dodge was back at her post, the paper explained.

In addition to sending young men off to war, Dodge had daily challenging conversations with their mothers, many experiencing the “heartache” of what Dodge called an “inescapable law of life”: their children growing up and leaving home, creating a void in their lives.

Dodge’s prescription? Community service.

“To give yourself a lift, you must give someone else a lift,” she told the reporter.

Dodge was also ahead of her time with her staunch beliefs that women had strong contributions to make to the functioning of government.

“No woman should just sit back bottling up her abilities,” Dodge told the reporter. “That is a waste to society. I sincerely feel that the world would be a great deal better off right now if more intelligent women had had a voice in shaping its destiny.”

But Dodge also warned women considering joining the government workforce to be ready to do the work.

“The girl who just wants to mark time, or draw a paycheck with a minimum of effort, should stay out of government service,” Dodge said. “That type just clutters up the scene and creates confusion.”

Enduring idea 

Dodge died in 1993 at the age of 96, but her indomitable spirit echoes in what the Dodge Fund remains, 50 years after its founding.

Tapped unceremoniously to take the baton in 2011 by predecessor Peg Stone, Cutler made one of her priorities during her stewardship of the Dodge Fund bringing a bit of order to the merry madness.

Getting the process started: Linda Sullivan wheels in a cart full of boxes of cookies to be delivered as gifts to the elderly as part of the Dodge Fund. COURTESY PHOTO

To that end, Cutler had a secret weapon, her late husband, Hooper, a retired fire captain legendary for his encyclopedic knowledge of the town’s streets, among other things.

Where once Dodge Fund delivery “elves” scattered every which way to make their appointed rounds, now there is logic to the 45 routes — typically 18 to 20 stops each — devised with the help of an oversized map of the town at least 4 feet by 6 feet, according to Cutler.

For the last decade or so, Cutler has also emphasized encouraging multigenerational delivery teams, finding younger volunteers through religious education programs, the Girl Scouts or just neighborhood families. 

It is a win-win scenario, Cutler believes. The seniors enjoy seeing the kids, while the children get an early lesson in community service and having polite, friendly interactions with their elders.

“I’m a big believer in ‘get them young and train them right,’” Cutler said.

Not a quick visit

Cutler has a well-honed script she runs through with prospective volunteers to calibrate their expectations.

One of the most important rules is that the Dodge Fund is not a dump-and-run operation. For one thing, the critters that prowl the night would celebrate their good fortune with a feast upon finding an edible gift left on a doorstep. Clementines also explode spectacularly when exposed to low temperatures over an extended period, according to Cutler. 

But more to the point, part of the power of the Dodge Fund is the social interaction that the deliveries foster, the type of opportunity that may be in short supply in the seniors’ lives. Volunteers should expect the recipients will want to chat — or perhaps invite them in for a cup of tea. After a point, volunteers can cite the need to complete their routes to make a graceful exit, but a certain amount of indulgence is expected.

Volunteers should be prepared that some of their visits may be challenging as well. Cutler tells of a volunteer who was stunned to be greeted at the door by a frail woman wrapped in blankets — and a blast of cold air. The volunteer surmised that the woman had made the difficult choice that another necessity — perhaps food or medication — was a higher priority than heat.

Many hands

But more often, the Dodge Fund is a source of joy, and not just for the gift recipients. For several years, the Dodge Fund has had the benefit of volunteers from the Cottage Gardeners of Marblehead and Swampscott, who work in two shifts tearing off sections of huge bolts of wrapping paper to package what this year will be 1,960 boxes of cookies — 980 gifts of two boxes each — tie ribbons to the packages and address the accompanying cards by hand, a personal touch Cutler believes is important to maintain, even if computer-printed labels would save time.

The Cottage Gardeners have earned the nickname the “Wrap-and-Chats,” Cutler said.

“As fast as they wrap, they chat,” Cutler said.

Volunteers from the Cottage Gardeners of Marblehead and Swampscott, a.k.a. the Wrap-and-Chats, along with volunteer Cheryl Conrad prepare presents for Dodge Fund deliveries. COURTESY PHOTO

This year for the first time, the wrapping and chatting will be happening at the VFW, which should make things easier, as the Dodge Fund will not have to worry about commandeering tables, she said.

For years, Jon Caswell and MHTV have been picking up and delivering the clementines, Cutler added.

MHTV’s Jon Caswell delivers clementines with a hand from former Dodge Fund member Pam Campbell. The staff of MHTV picks up the Dodge Fund’s order of clementines from a local supermarket every year. COURTESY PHOTO

The wrapping and the sorting of the gifts will happen in the early part of the week of Dec. 4, with the deliveries beginning the following week.

In the Dodge Fund’s “off season,” volunteers do what they can to update the delivery routes, including monitoring local newspapers’ obituary pages. Volunteers are instructed to make three attempts to deliver to a particular address, and one recent innovation is that volunteers are dispatched with tags to hang on residents’ doors indicating that a delivery attempt had been made, inviting them to call to arrange a new delivery time.

But inevitably, there will be failed connections, perhaps because the resident is a “snow bird” who heads south for the winter. About 10% of gifts purchased go unclaimed, and these are donated to the Marblehead Food Pantry, Cutler explained. 

Wrapped boxes of cookies and bags of clementines with bows are ready to be delivered to Marblehead residents over the age of 80, courtesy of the Edith Dodge Memorial Fund. But getting to this point is no simple task. COURTESY PHOTO

In addition to the cookies and clementines that go to all the residents of senior housing and those living within Marblehead who are 80-plus, the Dodge Fund also aims to provide gifts to former Marblehead residents living in nearby nursing homes and extended care facilities beyond the 01945 zip code.

At one point, the Dodge Fund was soliciting wish lists from nursing home residents, but the effort was cumbersome, often involving follow-up inquiries about the type of book or size of sweater a resident might want. Now, all the nursing home residents get the same present: high-quality, colorful fleece blankets acquired at a deep discount from a local company, which are “perfect for naps and laps,” Cutler said.

Blankets for former Marblehead residents in extended-care facilities on the North Shore and all of the residents of the Lafayette and Devereux House nursing homes sit in festive gift bags, ready to be disseminated through the Dodge Fund. COURTESY PHOTO

How to help

While expenses vary due to the fluctuating cost of cookies and clementines, it costs about $15,000 annually to buy the gifts, wrapping paper, cards and other supplies, according to Cutler. While the fund is not in jeopardy, coming out of the COVID hiatus, donations were down “at least by a third” last year, according to Cutler.

Those wishing to donate to the Dodge Fund can send checks to P.O. Box 1402, Marblehead, MA 01945 or drop them off at the National Grand Bank, 91 Pleasant St. The Dodge Fund hopes to also have a digital donation opinion added, Cutler said.

Cutler is still seeking pairs of people to handle delivery routes as well. To learn more about volunteering with the Dodge Fund, give Cutler a call at 781-631-1596.

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