I’ve always believed that in order for a program or project to succeed, it needs a strong leader. I first realized this when I watched my second grade teacher inspire our entire class to learn. I saw it while working for the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau, which partnered with many social service programs to help the less fortunate. And I see it today in the volunteer programs I participate in. With the right person leading the way, great things can happen. That was the case when Clarissa Owens offered her charismatic leadership to the city of Fulton.
If you remember Clarissa’s contributions to our city it’s probably because of the program she founded: “Let’s Give For a Kid.” Clarissa started “Let’s Give” in 1958 with a simple goal: To collect used toys, then repair and distribute them at Christmastime to needy children in Fulton. Today, this sort of charitable act may seem commonplace, but 60 years ago the idea of gathering and giving toys a second life to make children happy was rare. But that didn’t stop Owens.
A native of St. Lawrence County, Clarissa moved to Fulton in 1927. Thirty years later, when she got the idea to help Fulton youth, she had already raised her own children and was a widow living on a modest income. Those who got to know her soon realized that she knew the value of a dollar.
“When I first met Clarissa, in the late 1970s, she still did her wash by hand and hung her clothes on the line year round,” said Monica MacKenzie, who helped Owens carry out her “Let’s Give For a Kid” program. “Even without appliances like a washing machine, Clarissa’s house was always spic and span.”
Perhaps it was Clarissa’s humble lifestyle that led her to create her gift-giving program. In the years Monica assisted Owens, she observed the deep concern her friend had for Fulton’s needy. “Clarissa got to know many of our city’s poor families. If they needed something—and not just at Christmas—they went to her house. She gave people groceries. She helped them find a place to live.”
According to newspaper articles about Clarissa’s success, she got the idea to help others after speaking with her pastor, Reverend Harold McGilvray of Fulton’s Congregational Church. Clarissa discussed her ambition to help children with Reverend McGilvray, confiding in him that she had no training and feared she would not know how to properly assist them. McGilvray’s reply was all Clarissa needed to hear.
“You have something worth far more than training,” the Reverend said. “You have a love of children.” He suggested that Clarissa approach the Salvation Army to offer her service.
Once the Salvation Army welcomed her, Clarissa started a Boys’ Club, where she provided youngsters healthy and fun activities. Five boys came the first week. It was a humble beginning, but within a year up to 125 participants were enjoying Clarissa’s projects. As the program grew and she met more families in Fulton, she realized there were many ways she could be of help.
The families of migrant workers who’d settled in the Fulton area benefited from Clarissa’s willingness to help. Along with tutoring them in English, she also found unique activities to offer those new to our city. One year, she organized a trick-or-treat outing for migrant children who had never heard of Halloween. When a Fulton resident learned that the children would be trick-or-treating for the first time, she decided to include a toothbrush along with a treat.
After the group of first-time trick-or-treaters returned to Clarissa’s house, she thought she was missing one little boy, "Where's Joey?" she asked the other children. The group found young Joey in the bathroom, cleaning his teeth. The toothbrush had excited the boy more than all the candy he’d received.
Clarissa’s advocacy for others went beyond fun activities and gift-giving. She sometimes served as a witness in court, speaking on behalf of young people who were in trouble or had been abandoned. But it was through “Let’s Give For a Kid” that she helped the most people. In her 25 years leading the program, from 1958 until her death in 1993, “Lady Santa,” as Clarissa was known, provided hundreds of families some joy during the holidays. Adults and parents received a food basket, and for the children there were reconditioned (and sometimes brand new) toys.
Clarissa made sure “Let’s Give” would continue after her death. After serving several years as her assistant, Monica MacKenzie agreed to lead it. Clarissa also gathered a group of concerned Fultonians to carry on her work. Included in that group was Harold Dowd, who served as the program’s treasurer, and the many volunteers who gathered toys, repaired and distributed them. Some of those dedicated workers were Jean LaClair, Ruby Shoults, Penny Abrams, Billy Kimball, and Naomi Vincent.
Businesses also offered their support for Clarissa’s work. Major sponsors during the program’s two and a half decades included Millers and Nestlé, and several service organizations, clubs, churches, and individuals. Among those was the Fulton Lions Club. “The Lions supported her program every step of the way,” Monica commented. “She even became a Lady Lion long before they installed women members.”
In 1993, shortly before her death, Fulton’s mayor, George Valette, declared January 7 as “Clarissa Owens Day.” The city erected a stone bench outside its Municipal Building. A plaque affixed to the bench informed pedestrians who paused there of Clarissa’s mission. For many years, the bench was a solid reminder of her work.
A quarter-century since that proclamation, with all the changes Fulton and the world have gone through, many may have forgotten Clarissa Owens. But rereading newspaper articles about “Let’s Give For a Kid” keep her legacy strong. A 1979 interview quoted Clarissa’s explanation of her simple philosophy: “Kids are my business and I stick with my business.” During all her years serving Fulton, because of Clarissa Owen’s compassionate leadership, she made our city a better place for children.