Being the season of giving, it is common to see advertisements and promotions for Christmas gift programs for the financial insecure. Groups such as Toys for Tots or Angel Tree cover the airwaves solicited toys to give to children whose parents are unable to purchase Christmas gifts. Churches across the country partner with these groups, or create their own program – all designed to bless families during this time of celebration.
It’s no shock that Christmas is an expensive time for families, even for those who are financially stable. Heading to sites like Raise for coupon codes and discounts can help, but for those who are financially struggling as it is, buying presents can be an impossible task, which is why these Christmas gift programs are so important.
Our church was no different. That is, until we feel into a game changing worldview shift on these traditional Christmas gift programs.
It all started last year at our food pantry and clothing closet. The food pantry director was tired of during with the paper work and regulations surrounding the Toys for Tots program as the benefit didn’t seem to match the work it took to pull of the program. Yet, she still wanted to do something for the families in the area…. so she started talking to some of the other pantry volunteers and they came up with an unique solution that “fit” our community and culture.
Before I tell you what they did, allow me to set the stage a bit more. Our church is located in a small rural village of 200 to 300 people tucked into the Idaho mountains with a strong sense of community. In 2008 a few community gals (some connected to our church, some not) got together and started a clothing exchange in the back room of our local restaurant, The Triangle (a great place to eat by the way!!), where folks could get some ‘new-to-them‘ clothes for free (or in exchange for their old stuff, either way). This “clothing closet”, as it is known, was absorbed into the food pantry started by our church in the fall of 2009. Since then, we have given literally tons of clothes, shoes, boots, coats, and various household goods to people who needed them. (One of my favorite stories is of a young girl of ten who started bouncing with joy at getting her second pair of blue jeans. Just a small act, but one that carries a powerful message.)
The culture that developed out of this clothing closet was one of ‘shopping‘ – as in, folks were used to coming to the food pantry and browsing through the racks of clothes, looking for that perfect shirt or pair of pants. Knowing this, the volunteers thinking about the Christmas gift program came up with the idea of having a “Christmas Store” in which parents could ‘shop’ for gifts. Running with the concept, they set out long tables in the back dining room of the Triangle loaded with toys (new or gently used) according to various age ranges. Parents were then able to browse through the “store“, picking out presents for each of their kids before having the gifts wrapped and tagged. They also had bowls of punch, trays of cookies and some cakes there for the folks to munch on as they browsed. All in all, I believe about 50 kids received presents that year through the “store” (this year we are on track to provide gifts for 80 or so kids).
Yet the biggest impact of the “Christmas Store” was not the number of kids who received presents – nor the number of volunteers who gave their time, energy and/or funds to make it happen. The biggest impact – the game changer, so to speak – happened among the parents. Instead of receiving a box of toys chosen by a stranger, the parents were empowered to choose a toy themselves for their children. Little Johnny likes XYZ while Annie likes ABC; each parent, or grandparent as the case may be, had the opportunity to choose a gift for their love one.