WESTBROOK, Maine — The fact that Marissa Bates was still wearing her hat and mittens as she came home from school upset the young girl, who was 9 years old at the time.

“She saw some other kids at school who weren’t wearing hats or gloves,” her mother, Veronica, recalled. “She had tried to give them her stuff, because she knew she had more at home, but they wouldn’t take it. So we ended up having a conversation about pride, and how some people wouldn’t take things even if they really needed them because of pride.”

Marissa Bates didn’t give up, and her solution to the problem — the Amazing Mitten Tree Project — is in it’s third year and expanding. Because of her initiative, the younger Bates, now 11, has rubbed elbows with Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey and received national attention.

“I saw people who didn’t have mittens and hats,” she said. “My idea was to take a Christmas tree and put mittens, scarves and hats on it, so they could be warm.”

The idea was simple enough: Post Christmas trees in the schools around her hometown of Westbrook and clip on donated hand- and head-warmers. As students need them, they’re welcome to take them.

The trees are artificial ones the Bates acquire on Craigslist or through the local “Freecycle” giveaway network.

Children can grab a pair simply because their own pair got wet at recess or because they didn’t have a pair to begin with — nobody will ask and nobody will know the difference, Veronica said.

Before the Mitten Trees, students in need were forced to go to the nurse’s office to ask for donated mittens, hats or scarves, and Marissa said her classmates often preferred to have cold hands over visiting the nurse.

“Everybody knew why they were going to the nurse,” she said.

Bates, initially enlisting the help of her fellow Girl Scouts, collected donations of hats, mittens and gloves for the project. As word spread about what she was doing, the donations started piling up.

Pratt-Abbott, a Greater Portland dry cleaning chain, offered to hand over the hats and mittens it finds in its Coats for Kids donation bins. Other donations came from local businesses like Extreme Screen and Rosemary’s Gifts, while still more arrived from area knitters.

“We’ll just come home and there will be a big bag on the porch,” Veronica said.

On one afternoon last winter, Marissa came home to a surprise of a different sort. She received word she’d been given a Prudential Spirit of Community Award — bestowed on one middle schooler and one high schooler from each state annually — and would get a weeklong trip to Washington, D.C. in May.

There, she mingled with other students, talked about her project, met award program supporter Spacey, and received a silver medal and a $1,000 prize.

And more hats and mittens.

“All the kids get together and share their projects with each other, and they want to help each other out,” Veronica recalled. “We did come home with a lot of hats and mittens at that time.

“It was amazing,” she continued. “They treated the girls like rock stars.”

Already at the Westbrook Community Center, three Westbrook elementary schools and the town’s middle school, Veronica said Mitten Trees are starting to sprout in other communities, as well. She said she’s spoken to individuals in Old Orchard Beach and the Buxton-Standish-area SAD 6 about establishing the program in those schools.

“That’s because so many people need them,” Marissa said.

Hats, mittens, gloves and scarves can be dropped off for donation at Westbrook Middle School, the Saccarappa School, Canal School and the Westbrook Community Center, or supporters can contact the Bates directly at nica@maine.rr.com or at 358-0149.

The Mitten Tree project is also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AmazingMittenTreeProject.


Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.