By Jill Ragar Esfeld
OVERLAND PARK — “When the holidays come around,” said Barb O’Donnell, a parishioner at Church of the Ascension here, and you’re struggling and you don’t have anything to give your kids — there’s nothing worse than that.”
O’Donnell, a longtime volunteer with the Johnson County Christmas Bureau (JCCB) is proud to be part of an agency that makes a difference for such families.
So is fellow volunteer Cheryl Gettinger, a member of Holy Spirit Church in Overland Park.
“For some people,” she said, “it is absolutely the only holiday they’ll have. That’s why I’ve gotten involved with the Christmas Bureau.
“I think no matter what religion you are, it’s about the kids. And it’s about being able to eat.”
Making a difference in Johnson County
The Johnson County Christmas Bureau has been providing holiday assistance to low-income Johnson County residents for more than 50 years.
It answers a tremendous need that, surprising to many, exists in the wealthiest county in Kansas.
As a matter of fact, one in seven Johnson County residents is considered low-income.
“The majority of families we serve include at least one working parent,” said JCCB executive director Larry Bigus. “But the family income is not enough to provide economic security for their children.”
The Christmas Bureau serves residents with incomes below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which is approximately $35,000 for a family of four.
The bureau’s assistance comes in the form of a Holiday Shop where clients can choose everything they need from groceries to gifts.
The heart of the agency’s success comes from its core goal of providing an avenue for neighbors to help neighbors.
It is almost completely volunteer-run.
“We have more than 3,000 volunteers every year to make this a successful operation,” said Bigus. “And it is a wonderful, heartwarming volunteer opportunity.”
Bigus, along with his administrative assistant Kimberly Lynn are the organization’s only paid staff.
From shopping to shop building
Gettinger has been volunteering with the bureau for almost 30 years. She started when her children were young, helping sort groceries and gifts whenever she could.
Six years ago, she became chairman of adult gifts.
“I’ve learned in all these years what people want — from a pillow to a set of tools,” she said. “We shop all year, trying to get those items at a decent price.
“You learn when places start putting stuff on clearance. Some of the stores will actually call us. We shop online some, too.”
Other volunteers are emulating Gettinger’s efforts by shopping for teens and children, as well as collecting personal care items, winter wear, children’s clothing and groceries.
Items are stored at various locations until the Holiday Shop gets a home — this year at Metcalf South Shopping Center in Overland Park — where more volunteers build and stock a temporary department store.
When clients come to the Holiday Shop, they have a complete shopping experience.
“They start out and they get food,” explained Gettinger. “And they get books for each member of the family.
“Then there are personal care items — because food stamps don’t buy those things.
“Then there’s children’s clothing and then gifts for each member of the family. There’s a teen area, a toy area and an adult area.”
Clients have an opportunity to get gently used coats, as well as hats and gloves.
The most amazing aspect of the Holiday Shop is that it accommodates 24 clients every half hour for 10 days.
And the most impressive aspect is that it runs like clockwork — thanks to O’Donnell and her team of volunteers who begin organizing efforts long before the holiday season starts.
Coordinating and scheduling
The Gast house, owned by Lakeview Village Retirement Center, sits on a quiet corner in old-town Lenexa.
It is an unassuming little brick ranch. But if you walk inside any morning after Oct. 1, you will be amazed at the whirlwind of activity.
“Lakeview generously allows us to use the house,” said Bigus. “During the months of October and November, our client services group operates out of there.”
Beginning in early October, applications for the Holiday Shop are distributed to qualified residents recommended by at least 30 different agencies countywide.
“We get names from the government, we get names from Catholic Charities and we get names from the schools,” said O’Donnell.
Clients fill out and return the applications with suggestions of dates and times when they can shop.
The client services group spends long hours verifying thousands of applicants, and then coordinating and scheduling shopping times for clients and the volunteers who will help with the shopping experience.
“Everybody gets a response card with their time on it,” said O’Donnell.
Once the shop opens, client services is there to check people in and get them started shopping.
Year-round, the bureau relies on about 200 volunteers — but when the holiday season begins in earnest, that number swells to 3,000.
“That’s why I really love the organization,” said O’Donnell. “It’s full of all these great people who are just there wanting to help.”
Volunteers and real tears
Every family representative who goes through the Holiday Shop is accompanied by at least one volunteer helper.
“Last year, we had 3,400-and-some families come through,” said O’Donnell. “And we’re expecting that again this year.”
Volunteers are given training and a tour of the store.
“And then the clients come in and it’s amazing,” said Gettinger.
Stores donate grocery carts for families to use, and the carts are filled to capacity — and then some.
“A family of two would be one cart,” said Gettinger. “But a family of 4-6 will have two grocery carts full of things.”
The family representative, usually a mother, is so grateful for the experience that often she is reluctant to select a gift for herself.
“You’d be amazed at how often we hear, ‘I don’t need anything for me,’” said Gettinger. “And we say, ‘No, you need to take time and choose something for yourself.’
“And then the tears come. And then, sometimes, the tears come from us.”
Volunteer Mary Anne Murray Simons, a member of St. Ann Parish is Prairie Village, helps with the bureau’s marketing and public relations.
She also loves to assist at the Holiday Shop.
“Clients are treated as if they’re coming into a department store to shop,” she said. “They’re not demeaned in any way through the process.
“It’s a great family volunteering opportunity.”
Indeed, many families make volunteering at the Holiday Shop an annual event.
“That’s a really neat thing about this,” said Simons. “Families come back over and over and over again because they get so much out of it.”
Volunteers say their faith is the driving factor behind their involvement with the agency.
“We’re each given the opportunity to give back to those who don’t have all the benefits we’ve received,” said Simons. “I feel strongly that opportunities present themselves.
“We step up to those opportunities and, in so doing, it allows us to feel the connection we have with our faith and our community.”
The Festival of Trees
The Johnson County Christmas Bureau is presenting this year’s Festival of Trees at the Holiday Boutique, Nov. 19-22, at the Overland Park Convention Center.
The Holiday Boutique is an annual for-profit shopping experience. In an effort to give back to the community, it traditionally has an area where a charity can host a display of uniquely decorated holiday trees, wreaths and table arrangements that patrons can purchase through silent auction.
This year, all proceeds benefit the Johnson County Christmas Bureau.
“You will have an opportunity to look at all these items as you’re coming into the Holiday Boutique,” said Mary Anne Murray Simons who helped organize the event.
The holiday items for auction have been decorated and donated by individuals, companies and civic groups throughout Kansas City.
“You also will have an opportunity to bring canned goods or gently used children’s coats to put in bins we’ll have on-site,” said Simons. “You’ll be directly contributing to items that will be given to patrons at the Holiday Shop.”
Tickets to the Holiday Boutique may be purchased through the Johnson County Christmas Bureau’s website at: www.JCCB.org. Use the link on the right side of the home page labeled “Holiday Boutique Ticket Purchase.” Use the code “JCCB” in the promo code box and receive a $3 discount per ticket, with $1 going directly to JCCB.
For more information, contact the JCCB Festival of Trees committee by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (913) 341-4342.
Help the Holiday Shop
The Johnson County Christmas Bureau Holiday Shop still needs volunteers! Go to the website at: www.jccb.org and hit the big green volunteer button for more information.
There you’ll also find the 2015 Wish List of gift items needed for the Holiday Shop — and monetary donations are always welcome.
Benefit set for Dec. 4
Join the Johnson County Christmas Bureau on Dec. 4 for a fun-filled evening. Enjoy food and drinks, silent and live auctions, and live entertainment in its Holiday Shop location in Metcalf South Shopping Center (west mall entrance) in Overland Park. Tickets are $55 and can be purchased through the website at: www.jccb.org, or by calling (913) 341-4342.