An angel in our midst: Florence Kinney, Webster’s “Mrs. Claus”

21 Dec

Christmastime — the time of year everyone’s a little more charitable to one another, a little more patient and little kinder. Food pantry donations increase, Toys for Tots collection bins overflow. Winter clothing drives generate piles of coats, hats and mittens. But then, come the new year, everything pretty much goes back to normal.

For Webster resident Florence Kinney, kindness, compassion and charity don’t stop on December 26. They’re essential facets of her year-round mission to spread Christmas cheer.

Florence Kinney — or as some know her, “Mrs. Claus” — is the driving force behind an unbelievable grassroots ministry, which she calls “Santa’s Workshop,” dedicated to bringing presents to children who might not get many gifts, or anything, for Christmas.

Throughout the year, Florence buys toys for thousands of children to bring happiness and holiday cheer into their lives. It began as a project intended for children who had to spend the holidays in the hospital, but in 32 years since it began, it has grown far beyond that original purpose.

The story about how it all began is rather inspirational.

In December 1989, Florence came across an article in the Democrat and Chronicle about two brothers who were going to be spending their Christmas at Rochester General Hospital. After reading the article, she asked her husband Charles if they could go to the store and just buy one toy truck for each little boy. He agreed; just one toy.

After delivering the trucks to the hospital, something kept nagging at Florence. “It kept building in my mind,” she said. She asked Charles if they could go out and get just a few more. He agreed, again, and they headed out to shop.

They came back with 400 gifts.  

“He was a real patient man,” Florence said.

Naturally, RGH was thrilled with the donations, and spread the word at a meeting they had with other Rochester-area hospital administrators. Florence and Charles’ phone started ringing, but they’d already decided it simply cost too much money to do again.

Then they got a call from a D&C reporter who’d heard what they did at RGH and wanted to come out for an interview. Florence basically told him there’d be no need because they weren’t going to do it anymore.

The following day the reporter phoned again and asked Florence a question she wasn’t expecting.

“Mrs. Kinney,” he asked, “I just wondered, have you and your husband prayed about this? I wish you would because I think you would come up with a different answer.”

“It was a very emotional moment for us,” Florence remembered. She and Charles stood in a corner of their kitchen and prayed.

“Next thing we knew this heat just rose right up from our feet, right through our body. We both started crying our eyes out and I looked at (Charles) and said, ‘This is a calling.'”

Santa’s Workshop for Hospitalized Children began that day, and for more than three decades, has been bringing a litle bit of Christmas cheer to thousands of children each year.

“We didn’t turn anyone down,” Florence said. “I worked three jobs to try to keep it going. But we knew it was a calling.”

Even after her husband Charles passed away in 2003, Florence pressed on. And what began as a effort to bring joy to children at RGH eventually spread to include seven local ministries, plus children affected by natural disasters, and even children in other countries.

“Wherever we’re called, Santa’s Workshop goes,” Florence said.

Every year, multiple “elves” help Florence collect, box up and deliver toys, clothing, books, stuffed animals, trucks, game, puzzles and more. It’s a daunting job; last week’s delivery to RGH alone filled four SUVs.

If Florence ever doubted for a moment that her mission is divinely-driven, the miracles she encounters almost every day in her work are constant reminders. The most recent happened just a few days ago, as she was nearing her goal of providing 4,000 gifts this year.

A few days before the deliveries began, she counted all of the gifts, which filled several rooms of her house. She found she was 77 short of that magic number of 4,000. Just 77 more and she’d be done for the year.

Shortly thereafter, two of her elves came in, clutching seven gifts. Only 70 more to go.

Then, a friend called. “We’re going shopping for the kids,” he told Florence, and took her to Ollie’s. She filled shopping cart after shopping cart with gifts, which her friend then took to the front register and purchased.

She never told him she needed 70 more gifts. Nor was she counting them as she filled the carts. But when she got them home, she took stock again, knowing that she was pretty close.

There were 71 gifts. It was, Florence said, “magical.”

In the last 32 years Florence Kinney has distributed 96,500 gifts, most of which she purchased herself. She hopes to continue the ministry for at least one more year, and reach the unbelievable goal of 100,000 children served. That means only 3,500 more gifts; compared to this year’s 4,000, that should be a breeze. She’s already started purchasing gifts for next year and plans to head out early the day after Christmas to pick up some bargains.

I asked her, if and when she reached that goal, would she really be able to retire?

“The only way I could do it is if God tells me that,” she said. “He called me to it, he’ll call me away from it. I know that in my heart. It will be his decision to make.”

Then she laughed. “At this moment, we are going to try to, though.”

Whatever she decides, Florence Kinney has already created a legacy for which she will long be remembered.

* * *

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2 Responses to “An angel in our midst: Florence Kinney, Webster’s “Mrs. Claus””

  1. Kathy December 21, 2021 at 6:53 am #

    Amazing and inspiring story, Missy. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. James Lockwood December 21, 2021 at 8:28 am #

    She truly has a divine calling! Thank you for the inspiring a story..

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