Media-aided Christmas drives alive
by RICK NORTON Associate Editor
Dec 02, 2013 | 895 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
William Hall Rodgers, Empty Stocking Fund face growing need
VOLUNTEERS FILL BOXES with food staples during last year’s William Hall Rodgers Christmas Basket Fund drive. Distribution day this year is Saturday, Dec. 21, from Tri-State Warehouses. The nonprofit 501(c)(3) is coordinated exclusively by volunteers representing First Baptist Church of Cleveland, and a variety of other churches, groups and individuals. The Basket Fund is promoted seasonally by the Cleveland Daily Banner. The Basket Fund is named in honor of a former Banner editor who died of polio. Banner file photo, DONNA KAYLOR-OVERBY
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Throughout the year, news reporters and their media outlets are tasked with the responsibility of keeping readers, listeners and viewers informed about community happenings; at Christmastime, their mission in Cleveland and Bradley County gets a little more personal.

They sometimes get directly involved, not just in telling the news but in helping to make it. Of the two most recognized examples, one is a holiday project that is feeding families in need and the other one is reaching out specifically to children in struggling households.

The fundraising campaign for the William Hall Rodgers Basket Fund was launched well before Thanksgiving and will continue beyond the day of distribution on Saturday, Dec. 21. The annual Basket Fund is an established nonprofit entity coordinated through a collection of church volunteers and other organizations, and it is named in honor of a former Cleveland Daily Banner editor.

And early this morning at 6 o’clock as area residents were rising, The Empty Stocking Fund — which was founded by Tom and Sandra Rowland (before he was elected city mayor) and the late George R. “Bobby” Taylor — kicked off its annual campaign. The Empty Stocking Fund supports the Cleveland Christmas Party for Children, and is driven by a partnership between WCLE Mix 104.1 and Faith Memorial Church.

The Basket Fund, whose fundraising goal is $28,000, is hoping to provide food staples for as many as 1,100 Cleveland and Bradley County families. At last report, the fund had received donations of slightly more than $5,000.

Basket Fund volunteers will be distributing the food baskets on Saturday, Dec. 21, at Tri-State Warehouse, an organization that is providing strong support for the Bradley County drive.

The 43rd annual Empty Stocking Fund launched its annual campaign today with a WCLE Mix 104.1 live remote from the Church of God International Headquarters. The 10-day drive (includes weekdays only) will conclude on Friday, Dec. 13, with a four-hour grand finale from 6 to 10 a.m. in the Life Care Centers of America Professional Development Center. The live finale will feature music, choral entertainment, special guests, refreshments and plenty of last-day donations.

As is Empty Stocking Fund tradition, this year’s goal will be $1 more than was raised last year. The 2012 campaign was a record-setter.

“We are so grateful that thousands of people in this community are continuing to keep this great tradition alive by pledging money and supporting this effort,” said Steve Hartline, Mix 104.1 owner. “Last year was an unprecedented outreach as nearly $40,000 was raised and over 900 children were helped.”

The actual total was about $38,000.

Hartline has more than a passing interest in the radio station drive. His grandfather, the late Rev. M.E. Littlefield, founded the Christmas Party for Children more than six decades ago. Its origin dates back to a day when Littlefield distributed toys to area children in need from the trunk of his car. Littlefield was pastor and founder of Faith Memorial Church whose current pastor — David Riggs, and his wife, Barbara — help to coordinate the holiday program.

This year’s Christmas Party for Children will be held Saturday, Dec. 21 — the same morning as the Basket Fund distribution — from the Lee University Paul Dana Walker Arena, the facility where Flames and Lady Flames basketball games, and Lady Flames volleyball games, are played.

The Christmas Party was held at the Lee University arena for the first time last year due to a need for increased space.

Additional information about both The Empty Stocking Fund and the William Hall Rodgers Basket Fund can be found below.

The Empty

Stocking Fund

(Community Christmas

Party for Children)

Coordinated through Faith Memorial Church on 17th Street, the Cleveland Christmas Party for Children has begun registration at the church. Registration is taking place today (Monday) through Thursday (Dec. 5) from 10 a.m. to noon each day. By registering, eligible families can qualify their children for the shopping event on Dec. 21.

“We welcome all children age 12 and under,” Hartline stressed. “Due to the generosity of the community, we are able to give each child new toys and clothing.”

Prior to last year, the Christmas Party was held in the elementary school gymnasiums at Mayfield and Stuart. In explaining the move last year, Pastor Riggs pointed out, “[This] will allow more room for a more efficient and speedier process when the children come to get their toys, coats and goodies.”

Last year’s party at the much larger Walker Arena received rave reviews. This year’s event is expected to enjoy the same expediency and comfort for parents, children and on-site volunteers.

The Empty Stocking Fund originated in 1970 as a collaboration between the Rowlands when [Tom] was affiliated with WCLE Radio and the late [Bobby] Taylor who was a longtime banker and community advocate in Cleveland. Taylor went on to co-found the Bank of Cleveland and his support for The Empty Stocking Fund and Children’s Christmas Party never waivered.

Thanks to The Empty Stocking Fund, Faith Memorial Church and WCLE, the Christmas Party for Children has continued over the years in partnership with Cleveland and Bradley County corporate, individual and organizational donors.

“What began as a gesture of love with my grandfather — with Rev. Littlefield handing out toys and goodies from his car trunk — has now grown to provide toys, coats and goodies to about 1,000 children every year,” Hartline said during last year’s drive.

Hartline described the Christmas Party for Children as one link in a long chain of events in the Cleveland community that works to make the Christmas holidays a little brighter for area families in need.

“... It’s a constant reminder of our mission in life to care for those less fortunate,” Hartline said of the 2012 drive, and nothing has changed in a year’s time. “This is what my grandparents, the Rev. and Mrs. Littlefield, began as just a simple gesture of love and outreach. And today, hundreds of volunteers join in to make certain that tradition continues.”

He added, “People in this community believe in giving back, especially when it can benefit families in need.”

To support The Empty Stocking Fund and Christmas Party for Children, pledges may be called in to Mix 104.1 at 614-6499 or 472-6700. Pledges may be emailed to

Additional details are available at

William Hall Rodgers

Basket Fund

In life, the former newspaper editor believed in freedom of the press, but he also believed in the potential of the heart and how neighbors can help neighbors in times of need. While delivering the news by day, this community-minded editor worked closely with Associated Charities (a predecessor to United Way) to help local families in need at Christmas.

He was the son of the late Mr. and Mrs. Will L. Rodgers. His father and uncle, the late Walter Rodgers, were owners of the Banner when it changed from a weekly to a daily newspaper in 1922.

Battling polio for years, Rodgers died in his early 30s when stricken by a heart attack caused by complications from his disease.

In the years since, the Basket Fund has been coordinated by organizations like the Bradley County Ministerial Association and the Cleveland Jaycees.

Now, the Basket Fund is operated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization solely by volunteers, many of whom are members of the First Baptist Church of Cleveland congregation. Other churches and organizations lend their support as well.

Todd Duggan and his father, Jack, have worked with the Basket Fund for years. Traditionally, they work with about 80 volunteers on the day of the food basket distribution. This year’s event is set for Saturday, Dec. 21, at Tri-State Warehouse. Additional volunteers are always welcome, [Todd] Duggan reported.

In each year of its longstanding heritage, the William Hall Rodgers Basket Fund has been able to provide boxes of food staples to qualifying families who register. Program coordinators stress that 100 percent of all donations go directly to the Rodgers Christmas Basket Fund.

Donations may be mailed to First Tennessee Bank, P.O. Box 4880, Cleveland TN 37320-4880 or dropped off at First Tennessee Bank at 3870 Keith St.

Daily reminders of the Basket Fund are published on the front page of the Cleveland Daily Banner, and will continue to be provided through the end of the calendar year. Periodic updates are provided on donation totals, and individual donors and amounts are also published. Anonymous donations are honored.

Registration for this year’s William Hall Rodgers Basket Fund was held at the Museum Center at Five Points on Veterans Day.

“We had more than 1,100 families to sign up this year,” Duggan said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of need out there, and it keeps growing. That means the effort to coordinate the Basket Fund drive is getting bigger as well.”

Registration is now complete and no further names can be added to the list of recipients. But the most critical part of the drive is now at hand — the actual donations.

“Getting the donations is our biggest need right now as we head for the day of packing the boxes and distribution,” Duggan said. “Although the distribution is taking place on Dec. 21, we’ll actually continue to accept monetary donations through mid-January.”

Duggan said the food baskets, which hold a variety of food staples, weigh about 50 to 60 pounds each. Normally included in each basket is a hen, bread, peanut butter, cereal, pasta, canned goods, potatoes, flour and candy.

“We appreciate every donation that we receive, and to those who already have donated we really thank you,” Duggan said. “To those who want to help us, and who haven’t as yet, we encourage you to make your contribution as soon as possible. If the pace of our donations don’t pick up, we could be facing a shortfall.”

Duggan pointed to a variety of people and groups who serve as volunteers for the Basket Fund. One is his own church, First Baptist of Cleveland, which provides a slew of volunteers and monetary donors.

Another is the Bradley Central High School football team whose members work on distribution day to load the hundreds of heavy food baskets.

Still another is Bill Gray and his Grace Point Motorcycle Ministry whose riders personally deliver about 120 of the food baskets on distribution day.

“All of these people and groups are just a huge help to us,” Duggan said. “We also couldn’t do this without the support of Tri-State Warehouse. They provide us the space and volunteers and donors. They are really key to making this happen.”

In spite of it being a longstanding and well-respected Christmas drive in Cleveland, Duggan said the William Hall Rodgers Basket Fund struggles more now because of so many worthy holiday campaigns in the community. All are taking place at the same time.

“This has really cut into our donations for the Basket Fund,” Duggan said. “But looking at it from another perspective, it means that Cleveland and Bradley County — and its people, organizations and companies — are doing everything possible to help area families who are most in need.”

He added, “That’s what the Basket Fund is doing. We know that’s what others are doing as well. We just hope donors will find a way to help us all.”