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HOPE Holiday Shop readies for kids in need

DIANA CLARK, AN employee of Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, displays some of the free toys available to low-income residents at the nonprofit’s Holiday Shop at 282 Boardman St. in Middlebury. The shop, which opens Nov. 29, is an important source of Christmas toys for income-eligible households. Independent photo/John Flowers

MIDDLEBURY — Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) will reopen its Holiday Shop to in-person browsing next week after a two-year hiatus forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Located at the HOPE headquarters at 282 Boardman St. in Middlebury, the Holiday Shop features a hefty selection of free toys, books, puzzles and other gift options for low-income residents who otherwise couldn’t afford to provide their children Christmas presents. Jeanne Montross, executive director of HOPE, said the shop will likely serve around 600 Addison County children over the next month.

As always, area individuals, businesses and places of worship are providing key donations that will allow HOPE to stock the Holiday Shop tables with super, eye catching gifts for kids ages birth through 18.

“It’s a nice community effort that’s coming together,” Montross said during a recent interview at the shop.

Organizers promise a return to “near-normal” shopping conditions. While patrons will need to social distance and wear face coverings, they’ll be able to choose gifts in person. That’s a departure from last year, when COVID-19 conditions required volunteers to pre-pack people’s gift selections and pass them out a HOPE building window.

“It was a big challenge last year, because we weren’t allowing anyone (other than HOPE workers) to enter the building,” she said. “One of the biggest challenges for parents with that was they weren’t able to browse the books; that was huge.”

Montross said she’s prepared to revert to last year’s window transfer of holiday gifts if the state imposes stricter COVID-19 restrictions due to the Delta variant. Addison County has recorded 170 positive coronavirus tests during the past two weeks.

Another change this year, also related to COVID: The shop won’t be dealing in a lot of clothing. Just socks, underwear, mittens and hats.

Patrons of the Holiday Shop must have a household income of less than 200% of the federal poverty guideline. That’s currently $53,000 for a family of four.

“A lot of our families work, but don’t make a lot of money,” Montross said. “Day care costs a lot. They’re really struggling to make their household expenses. To buy gifts for their children on top of that, that money has to come from somewhere. Is it the rent, the heat bill? What is it?

“We would rather that they come to the Holiday Shop for free gifts, and then use their money for their household budget,” she added.

Patrons must call HOPE in advance at 802-388-3608 to make an appointment for their shopping visit, during which they’ll be able to select a number of games, toys, activities and books per child, according to Montross.

The Holiday Shop will open Monday, Nov. 29, and close on Dec. 23. Hours will be Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and it’ll open one Saturday — Dec. 11, from 9 a.m. to noon. Since many businesses won’t be starting their toy drives until Nov. 29, HOPE needs to buy toys to accommodate the earlier Holiday Shop visitors.

HOPE officials are trying to make it as easy as possible for people to contribute to the effort. They’re encouraging donors to give cash, if possible, which the nonprofit can then use to maximum effect. Montross explained HOPE has secured an account with a wholesale gift supplier, leading to very good deals.

“I was really, really pleased with the prices and quality (of merchandise),” she said.

Area businesses are again accepting Christmas tree tags bearing holiday gift ideas for children. Each of the tags bears a child’s age range and gift suggestions, which the tag-taker buys and turns in to HOPE or the participating business.

Montross said some businesses are simply maintaining gift drop boxes, while not using the tags.

Another easy way to give: Go to hope-vt.org, where you’ll find gift suggestions. It’s as easy as clicking on the image of the gift and donating the amount needed for HOPE to buy it.

BULK BUYING

Montross is pleased with the creativity Holiday Shop boosters are showing in their assistance to the toy drive. For example, the Vermont Book Shop is lending its purchasing power to the HOPE effort. Vermont Book Shop owner Becky Dayton explained most major publishers offer business-to-business discounts for bulk orders of books that will be given away as corporate gifts, promotional items, or donations.

“Some allow us to use these special accounts for school orders, as well,” she said. “We have been taking advantage of these special terms for years to pass along substantial discounts to local schools and nonprofit organizations. It has always been part of my personal mission at the Vermont Book Shop to support the community that supports us, so I do whatever is in my power to assist community organizations like HOPE to make new books available to those who might not otherwise have them, and to work with schools to keep their business local while not busting their budgets.”

This means that HOPE will get a bigger bang for its book buck this year.

Any savings will be much appreciated, according to Montross, who’s experiencing some sticker shock these days.

“I’ve been concerned by supply-chain disruptions and prices,” she said. “We’re seeing inflation. We’ll have to spend a bit more this year.”

Montross has gone shopping to fill gaps in the Holiday Shop inventory, and it’s been a challenge. She’s found prices for toys like Legos to be 20-25% higher than they were last year, and it’s been tougher to find some of the more popular toys.

At this point, the most needed items include large trucks for kids, and toys for children in the 7-12 age group. Also in demand are gift cards for teens, to such stores as Old Navy, Target and H&M.

Helen Haerle has been a longtime volunteer with the HOPE Holiday Shop. She’s a natural for the role; not only because of her generous nature, but because she was involved in retail for many years as a manager and then owner of Middlebury’s Lazarus Department Store.

Haerle has been particularly involved in organizing the St. Mary’s Catholic Church congregation’s gift donations to the HOPE shop. She’ll be among several volunteers and HOPE staff members who’ll manage the store during its brief run.

“I’ve always enjoyed it,” she said. “It’s Christmas, and it’s time to give to others.”

Dayton has had a long association with HOPE, as a board member (and past president). She’s pleased the organization can bring some joy and help folks through difficult times.

“Jeanne, her staff, and volunteers move heaven and earth to provide an opportunity for families experiencing homelessness and/or poverty to put something shiny and new under their trees or at the end of their kids’ beds,” she said. “The holidays should be a time of magic for every child. I am very fortunate to be in a position to contribute to HOPE’s effort to deliver on that ideal.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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