2020 marks a very special year for Operation Cover Up.
It is 20 years since Taupō woman Liz Clarke, moved by the plight of children suffering in freezing conditions in a Moldovan orphanage, asked the community to donate 67 knitted blankets to help keep them warm.
The initiative, daubed Operation Cover Up, has since expanded around New Zealand and into Australia and every year thousands of knitted items as well as toys, sports gear, shoes and toiletries are sent to The Netherlands to charity Mission Without Borders for distribution to the orphanages and poor families of Eastern Europe.
Between 2000 and 2019, more than 855,000 knitted items were donated, along with hundreds of thousands of other items, from carpentry tools to bed linen.
For Liz, who cannot even knit herself, it has proved an astonishing journey and provided her with a massive sense of purpose, something she says she has also seen in many of the knitters, who enjoy being able to use their knitting talents to produce beautiful warm woollen products they know will be gratefully received and put to good use.
Every year Liz holds a coffee morning at the Salvation Army hall in Kiddle Drive, Taupō, where knitters and other donors can bring along the goods they have produced during the year and hear an update on Operation Cover Up.
This year's coffee morning, which will be held next Tuesday, August 4, is a special one though. It will be combined with a celebration of 20 years of Operation Cover Up. Mission Without Borders New Zealand director Andrew Wilks will be there too, along with eight of Operation Cover Up's co-ordinators from around New Zealand.
"I want to say 'well done Taupō for getting behind me', because that's really why [Operation Cover Up] started," Liz says.
"It was when I asked for 67 blankets for my little sponsored boy George in Moldova and got 240 blankets and hundreds of other items that I was encouraged to take it around the country."
Along with the coffee morning, Liz has also marked 20 years of Operation Cover Up by producing a book, The Warmth of Love: 20 years of Operation Cover Up, which documents the project's inception and growth.
Told with the use of personal anecdote and humour, it's a look back at how Liz came to start Operation Cover Up, stories of some of those who have contributed, tales of the trials that had to be overcome and an account of Liz's trip to Ukraine in 2005 in freezing conditions to see the orphanages for herself, interspersed with colourful photographs.
Liz wrote and self-published the book and is selling it for $30 per copy.
"It's got a bit of my life mixed in with it but it's not about me, it's about being part of a team and I've written it on behalf of everyone. It's the story of Operation Cover Up, not the story of Liz Clarke."
Some of Operation Cover Up's original knitters have since died or retired from knitting but Liz says knitting is as popular as ever and she is heartened by the number of people who approach her offering to help knit for Operation Cover Up. They, and anybody else interested, are also welcome at the morning tea.
Liz says Operation Cover Up has grown to be more than she could ever have imagined. She suffered from health issues that have sometimes made it a challenge to travel around New Zealand speaking to different groups and spreading the word but says the effort has "truly been worth it".
Liz says Operation Cover Up is a community project and is about showing compassion and love for under-privileged and marginalised people and also shows that people do not need to limit themselves in what they can achieve.
The Operation Cover Up coffee morning and 20 year celebration is at the Salvation Army in Kiddle Drive, Taupō on Tuesday, August 4 at 10am, and everyone is welcome. If you have knitted items of clothing to donate, please bring them. Wool is also desperately needed. In addition, Operation Cover Up welcomes donations of new shoes, toys, sports equipment, linen, toiletries and stationery, as well as new or used hand tools in good condition.
The book, The Warmth of Love, can be purchased from Liz at the coffee morning or by phoning her on 378 9171.