The Season of Gifting

In the basement of Neighbors, Inc.’s building is a makeshift Santa’s workshop full of donations for the organization’s holiday programs. (Hannah Burlingame/Review)
In the basement of Neighbors, Inc.’s building is a makeshift Santa’s workshop full of donations for the organization’s holiday programs. (Hannah Burlingame/Review)
Operation Christmas Child Shoeboxes are packed into larger boxes before being sent to a collection center. (Hannah Burlingame/Review)
Operation Christmas Child Shoeboxes are packed into larger boxes before being sent to a collection center. (Hannah Burlingame/Review)

Local gift drives are wrapped in generosity

It is often said the holiday season is a time of giving.

A couple of local organizations are taking that to heart again this year.

Neighbors, Inc.

In 1972, several local churches in the South St. Paul area joined together to form Neighbors, Inc. About a decade later the social service agency began its annual "Adopt-A-Family" program.

"I think it got started by people calling up and requesting that they adopt a family," says Joan Rhodes, director of programs.

As is the case with many non-profits, there's a lot of work to be done but a very small staff, so workers fill multiple roles. Annie Nelson is the emergency services intake specialist for Neighbors, but she is also the program coordinator for the holiday program.

"I loved it my first year. It's kind of like working in Santa's workshop," Nelson says. "It's making sure especially children and seniors have a little bit of happiness on that day."

How the program works

The holiday assistance program serves families and seniors living in the northern Dakota County, including Inver Grove Heights, South and West St. Paul, Mendota Heights, Mendota, Lilydale and Sunfish Lake, Nelson says.

The program has a financial requirement, Nelson says, and those applying need to provide income and expense information to indicate why they need help.

Once it's determined families qualify, they apply for "adoption" by filling out a wish list.

"It kind of breaks your heart sometimes because people will have a hard time filling out the list, I think because the kids are so used to not asking for stuff," Nelson explains.

Children up to 18 can be adopted, but they need to be enrolled in high school. Seniors age 65 and older are also eligible.

People wanting to shop for gifts for a child or senior are told to be prepared to spend a minimum of $100 per kid or senior, Nelson said.

Some shoppers have specific requests like age range or gender of the recipient.

The adopters receive a sheet with their adoptee's information like clothing size, favorite color and types of toys they enjoy.

The Adopt-A-Family holiday program does not accept used items.

Typically, there are more people in need than there are folks wishing to purchase gifts for donation. For those not adopted, volunteers put together bags with items including socks, mittens, hats and clothes if available, one major gift and books.

Sandy Geronime, a volunteer, says ideally every family would be adopted.

"That's the perfect world where you get adopted by an individual family who shops for you specifically so if you want a sweatshirt in a size medium in pink, they can pick it up," Geronime says.

Support of volunteers

During November and December, volunteers pack up bags for families who are not adopted. Nelson estimates there are about 30 volunteers who help during the two months.

Mary Lou Johnson has been a volunteer since 2001.

"I can't think of a better 'feel good' program. I'd pay them to [be allowed] do this. That's how strong I feel about this," Johnson says.

The most rewarding part is seeing the system work and people donating items for families to pick up, Johnson says.

Geronime has been with the organization for four years, and Linda Franke has been volunteering for nine years.

Geronime says her grandchildren are older now, so she doesn't get to shop for the "fun toys" anymore.

"We're shopping when we're putting bags together. We just don't have to pay for it," she says with a chuckle.

Franke keeps coming back every year because of the satisfaction of helping others who normally don't get much during the holiday season.

"There's going to be a lot of happy faces Christmas morning when they get something like a new bike or even a new Barbie," Franke says.

Geronime chimes in that those who bring in toys and donations have some of the biggest smiles on their faces as well. There was one man donating a bike and helmet who was grinning from ear to ear.

There also have been times when both Franke and Geronime cried when families have come to pick up their bags of donated gifts.

"They put stuff on their lists they never expect to get, just hoping maybe, and when they do get it, that's your thanks right there. It's a hug or some tears," Franke says.

The work isn't always easy. Geronime describes the time a volunteer was packing up a bag and discovered there were only three coats for a family of four. The volunteer felt crushed that there wasn't a fourth jacket.

Geronime remembers pointing out that maybe the family would have enough money to buy that one coat because they were getting three others.

Volunteers often pitch in and both Franke and Geronime have adopted families.

The cutoff for applying for assistance is Wednesday, Dec. 9.

Donors need to drop off gifts by Wednesday, Dec. 16. Those interested or have questions about adopting should call 651-306-2152.

Operation Christmas Child

Riverview Baptist Church has been involved with Operation Christmas Child since at least the late 1990s, says Judy Hamen, relay center coordinator.

Individuals and families fill shoeboxes with gift items, school supplies and plush toys, and drop them off at locations such as Riverview Baptist Church, which is a relay center.

The boxes are brought to one of nine processing centers and then shipped overseas to a number of countries. Operation Christmas Child boxes from Minnesota are being sent to several countries, including Barbados, Dominica, Guyana, Kenya, Togo and more.

In 2014/2015, the Samaritan's Purse charity, which coordinates Operation Christmas Child, delivered 10 million shoeboxes to children in 100 countries. Last year, area residents brought 1,600 filled shoeboxes to Riverview Baptist.

Many of the children receiving the gift boxes are offered a follow-up Bible study program.

"There are so many people in the world that do not know about Jesus. This is a way to do it," Hamen says. "It's just a wonderful ministry."

Hannah Burlingame can be reached at or 651-748-7824.


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