Groups joining to spread holiday cheer

MIDDLEBURY — Three local organizations will join forces this year in an effort to spread holiday cheer to Addison County children who might otherwise not have any presents to open on Christmas Day.
Historically, Volunteers for Community Action, St. Mary’s Church and Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) have run separate programs funneling donated holiday gifts to children in low-income households. All three of those organizations are instead uniting this fall to serve eligible families at what will be called the “Holiday Shop at HOPE.”
“We are really excited,” HOPE Executive Director Jeanne Montross said of the collaboration.
Volunteers for Community Action has for years run its seasonal Christmas Shop within the HOPE headquarters on Boardman Street. Meanwhile, St. Mary’s Church had operated its own gift program, while HOPE had coordinated a “giving tree” program through which people could pick up children’s wish-list tags at participating businesses.
Montross said it made sense to offer the service jointly, and she noted folks at St. Mary’s and Volunteers for Community Action agreed. The shop will be set up within the HOPE building’s two large conference rooms.
“We will start setting it up on Nov. 1 and officially open (the shop) on Nov. 17,” Montross said. It will be open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., as well as a few Saturdays leading up to Christmas to accommodate people who can’t make it during conventional business hours, according to Montross.
The Holiday Shop at HOPE will cater to households earning less than 185 percent of the federal poverty guideline, which amounts to approximately $44,000 for a family of four. Participating families will be asked to schedule a specific date and time to come in and pick out the toys, books and clothing they’d like to take home and wrap for their children. There will be limits on the number of items each family is allowed to pick out. Some of the shop volunteers are also discussing the possibility of offering on-site gift wrapping.
“There will be a modest selection,” Montross said of store items. “People will be able to select either a coat or a clothing outfit; a couple of toys or games; and books.”
And of course the variety in the shop will depend on contributors, whom Montross credited with being very generous in the past. People are being encouraged to donate new (or just like new) clothing, toys, gift cards for up to $25, books and cash that will be used to buy some of the more popular and reasonably priced kids’ gifts.
“We are looking for gifts that will be sufficient, not excessive,” Montross said. “There are better uses for community money than spending it on extravagant gifts.”
She hopes the availability of gifts prevents low-income families from dipping into their meager food or rent budgets to pay for presents.
HOPE will continue to circulate gift suggestion tags to various businesses, Middlebury College, churches and individuals. Donors will be able to drop off their toy, clothing, book and/or money contributions at the HOPE headquarters off Boardman Street in Middlebury during business hours.
Last year, presents gathered by HOPE reached around 750 children, according to Montross.
“We expect it to be bigger this year,” she said, noting the unified effort this time around.
Gale Hurd of Weybridge has been a HOPE volunteer and helped plan this year’s collaborative Christmas shop.
“I think it will be a great collaboration and help that many more families,” Hurd said. “I think the new setup is wonderful.”
Middlebury’s Helen Haerle coordinated the St. Mary’s Church gift shop for 15 years. The parish solicited unwrapped gifts — such as toys, clothing and games — that were made available to area families facing tough financial times. The shop, set up in the St. Mary’s parish hall, was open to families for two Saturdays in December leading up to Christmas. Parents were allowed to pick out toys for their children and a piece of clothing or household item for themselves, Haerle recalled.
“We usually gave out gifts to around 500 people,” Haerle said.
But the job of coordinating the shop became too arduous for Haerle, who had announced that 2013 would be her last at the helm of the St. Mary’s program. Church leaders decided it would make sense in future years to collaborate with HOPE. So a tree will be set up at St. Mary’s from which donors can select tags with gift ideas for the HOPE shop. That tree will be in place by Nov. 10 and stay up until Dec. 10, according to Haerle.
“I think they will do fine,” Haerle said of the HOPE shop. “I thought this was a fine alternative and fits in well with what we have done in the past.”
People seeking more information about the Holiday Shop at HOPE can log on to hope-vt.org, or call the organization at 388-3608.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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