Christmastime evokes memories of snow, hot cocoa, and Christmas cookies. Also of caroling, spending time with family, and, of course, presents. But while the holidays are a joyous time of the year for many families, for others it is a time of financial stress and struggles.
Douglas County, Colorado, United States, has the highest cost of living anywhere in the state, and suburban poverty is an often hidden but quickly growing problem. It’s not uncommon for those in the area to feel a financial strain during the most wonderful time of the year. That’s why Parker Adventist Hospital, in collaboration with Newday Seventh-day Adventist Church, is providing Christmas gifts at no cost to families in need through their Christmas Store.
The free shopping experience is hitting a significant milestone this year, celebrating its 10th anniversary. Since 2011, the church and hospital have worked together with social workers from local public schools to identify families that don’t qualify for other types of aid but will have a hard time putting presents under the tree. The tickets are then distributed to the selected families, such as the Martins.* When they received their ticket, the family felt like a weight lifted off their shoulders.
When they arrived at the hospital, the Martins were greeted by friendly volunteers and ushered into a cheerily decorated room, with presents piled high on tables. The parents went to a different room where they could enjoy beverages, snacks, and relaxation while their children did the shopping.
Each child is assigned a personal shopping assistant to help them navigate the tables full of high-quality gifts, sorted onto tables by age and gender, and curated all year by a group of volunteers. The children can pick out gifts for themselves and each family member, so volunteers ensure ahead of time that there are gifts available to appeal to all ages, from infants to grandparents. Options include a wide range of items from sports gear to clothing, personal care products to appliances. Once the gifts are selected, they are custom wrapped by a volunteer and taken home by the Martins to be opened on Christmas morning.
The store is almost entirely volunteer-driven. It takes a small army to pull off this event, starting as early as shopping the after-Christmas sales. Volunteers’ roles include helping kids shop, wrapping gifts, restocking the gift tables, directing traffic, setting up, decorating, and greeting families as they arrive. The volunteers include associates at the hospital, members of Newday church, local community members, and even some from out of state who love the Christmas Store so much that they travel to be a part of it each year.
In 2020, the Christmas Store looked a little different. COVID-19 made it impossible to hold the event as usual, but that didn’t stop the team from extending a helping hand to their community. The store operated more like a call center, with volunteers handling the phones, finding out what children wanted, and coordinating a time for the families to pick up their gifts.
According to Matthew Mundall, one of the chaplains at Parker Adventist Hospital, the team is looking forward to holding the event in person in 2021. They plan to have the Christmas Store as close to normal as possible while following local health directives. Last year, 125 families were served at the store, and the program is planning for even more this year.
“The program even grew during COVID-19, so you can only imagine how much it will grow in the future,” Mundall said.
Whatever the future holds, many people are invested in the store and its success, from families like the Martins to the volunteers and associates who help it succeed. According to Michael Goebel, CEO of Parker Adventist Hospital, the Christmas Store benefits those who make it happen as much as those who receive gifts.
“We host the store every year because we’re here for our community, and that goes beyond their physical health; it extends to every aspect of their lives,” Goebel said. “Providing some Christmas joy to families who cannot afford gifts is just another way we make sure our community is whole and healthy. Getting to see kids light up knowing they will have a Christmas is worth more than words can describe.”
* The family’s name has been changed to protect their privacy.