Holiday Gift week. It is something that is talked about throughout the year as one of the best (and busiest) weeks of the year at REACH. It is highly anticipated, extremely organized, and most of all, filled with passion that exudes from everyone involved. Survivors, donors, community members, staff, volunteers. You can feel it in the air.
I started working at REACH in June, so this year was my first Holiday Gift week. Having previously worked at an organization that did a similar program, I felt like I was somewhat prepared for what was to come. I quickly learned that REACH’s Holiday Gift Program is truly like no other.
The preparation alone was something I have never seen before. Starting about a week before the big party, staff and volunteers started the process of re-purposing our main office from a warm and welcoming workspace to a well-oiled machine that could easily be confused for Santa’s workshop. This was the first year we were coordinating Holiday Gift at our new office and not in an empty retail space. From the beginning, we knew this was going to be an adjustment. To start the transformation process, over 50 metal shelving units were assembled (twice, because everyone knows that you have to do it incorrectly the first time to REALLY know what you are doing) to line our two conference rooms with gifts for 276 families. Sorting stations were setup throughout the office for staff and volunteers to process and organize all the gifts that came in and our downstairs lobby was cheerfully decorated so everyone would be greeted with festivity. A plethora of snacks were purchased, coffee was constantly brewing, and we were ready to go!
Gift collection started on a Saturday and was set to end on Tuesday. In order for Holiday Gift to go smoothly, all hands needed to be on deck. And indeed, they were. Volunteers from all walks of life spent countless hours of their time making sure this week was a success. College interns who were in the middle of finals week used their study breaks to help unload presents from donors’ cars. Retired volunteers who have been involved with REACH for decades eagerly delivered presents to community-based clients all throughout our service area. Past staff members took time off work to organize hundreds of gifts. One of REACH’s core values states “We are all in this together. We do our work as part of a larger movement. We are collaborative, supporting one another in task and spirit.” The sincerity behind this value was undeniable during Holiday Gift week. For one week, dozens of people who are all connected to REACH differently, dropped what they were doing to make sure that 276 families had gifts this holiday season. Everyone came together with one goal in mind and that was to provide light and hope for hundreds of deserving people.
Donors starting arriving early Saturday morning to drop off presents. I spent a lot of my time sitting in the lobby and talking with donors about their experience and why they choose to give through the Holiday Gift Program. Several donors have been participating for over ten years and it has become a cherished family tradition. One donor told me that she used to go shopping with her son every year to buy presents for the family they were supporting, but now that he is grown up and lives on the other side of the country, they keep the tradition alive by Face Timing while she shops. Another donor told us that REACH’s Holiday Gift Program is the highlight of not only her holidays, but her entire year. Many people shared a personal connection that they have to REACH’s mission and one donor said that she wouldn’t be where she is today without REACH. It seemed that every donor had their own personal reason as to why they give to the Holiday Gift Program, but one thing was the same for every donor: The smile on their face from knowing that they were making a family’s holiday dreams come true.
All the preparation and the gift collection process was leading up to one big night: The Holiday Party for survivors. The party was generously hosted by one of our awesome corporate partners with catering donated by Blue Ribbon BBQ. Wonderful volunteers, including a new group of folks from Temple Beth Avodah prepared fabulous salads and desserts to help complete the feast. Crafts were set up for the kids and Santa made his highly anticipated appearance. One little girl was so star struck when Santa arrived, that she couldn’t even talk! After a few minutes, she was able to muster up enough courage to give him a big hug. With the help of our amazing volunteers, the party was huge success and hundreds of people came together to celebrate the holidays, community, and togetherness.
While the party was happening across town, several volunteers and staff were back at the office to help survivors receive their gifts. The energy and excitement made the room buzz. Holiday music was playing, folks were laughing, and survivors were in awe of the generosity from our incredible donors. All was going so well, until we got a call saying that the elevator we were relying on was stuck, with six volunteers in it. Fortunately, the volunteers were able to get out within a matter of minutes and were completely fine, but it did mean that we could no longer use the elevator to bring the hundreds of gifts that we were distributing down three flights of stairs. In a less than ideal situation, our volunteers remained cool, calm, and collected and started using the stairs with no complaints. There were families waiting for their gifts and we were going to make it work, regardless of technical issues. The resilience that everyone showed was incredibly humbling. I have never seen a group of people singing, laughing, and smiling as they went up and down three flights of stairs dozens of times. Holiday magic was real that night and we were once again reminded of how invaluable REACH’s community of supporters are.
All and all, my first Holiday Gift week was one for the books. Throughout the entire process, I witnessed everyone come together and conquer a huge undertaking in order to ensure that the holidays are merry. So much goes on behind-the-scenes to make this program work and there are so many people, from staff to volunteers to businesses to families in the community, who make this program possible. The hard work and the bumps in the road are beyond worth it to see the utter happiness this program brings to hundreds of survivors. One survivor said “I was dreading the holiday season, not only emotionally but financially…I cannot begin to thank everyone involved; not only for the toys, but also for the delight I was able to have Christmas morning being able to watch my boys being completely overwhelmed and so excited with each and every one of the gifts. You all do wonderful work and I truly hope to be in the position someday to be able to give back to someone else going through what I have experienced. You have given hope, strength, and happiness to my family.”
Those words. The smiles on the faces of families who received gifts. The joy and excitement from volunteers. The generosity of donors. The tireless work from every staff member. This is what makes REACH’s Holiday Gift Program like no other and I am so proud to be a part of this team.