When committee members implemented a voucher system for last year’s Spirit of Christmas campaign in Bridgeport, it was for logistical reasons.
But the beaming smiles of those helped by the reorganized effort best conveys the success of a relatively new process.
In lieu of presents, only cash donations were collected for the angels, and that money was converted to vouchers – $100 per child that could be redeemed at Wal-Mart for toys and clothes only at specific times on certain days.
Organizers believed this would streamline a labyrinthine process of storing, organizing and distributing donations in a hefty, black trash bag, sometimes containing items not fitting of a child’s size or preference.
“By 2010, this became nearly unmanageable,” said Sylvia Elenburg, Bridgeport Spirit of Christmas chairperson. “Given the economic conditions and people down on their luck who had lost their job or whose hours were cut, the numbers kept climbing each of the last few years. It was a lot to manage. It got to be too big. The inventory was too big. And honestly, presenting these families with a hefty, black trash bag full of donations didn’t convey the spirit of Christmas.”
In search of a more simplified method, committee members implemented the voucher system, beginning with a more rigorous application process – that this year required a copy of each applicant’s 2011 tax return and limited participation to three years at a time.
“With this process, we are able to do better recordkeeping and ensure that the families that receive help are really in need,” said Tiffany Evans, executive director of the Bridgeport Area Chamber of Commerce.
During voucher redemption, those approved shopped at their own will then checked out through a certain line where tags were marked and cut (to prevent the items’ return). A committee member approved the voucher (which had no cash value), verified only clothes and toys (with no one item exceeding $50) were purchased and escorted the recipients to their vehicle, as receipts were not given (again, to deter returns and exchanges).
“The new system was met with some hesitation,” Elenburg said. “Everyone had always shopped for their angel. Once we relayed some of the issues that arise thereafter – clothes not fitting, items not suiting a child’s taste and preference, parents exchanging the gifts for money and their own purchases – and once people realized that this was probably the one and only shopping opportunity for the parents of families in need, most people came around.”
And their investments prospered.
“We had hoped for mediocre success,” Elenburg said. “It was phenomenal success. Vouchers were 100 percent redeemed. These people were like, ‘we would not miss the opportunity to shop.’ We had parents and grandparents say, ‘This is my Christmas gift, getting to shop for my kids and grandkids, getting to pick out the things we know they want but couldn’t otherwise afford.’
“We checked their voucher, checked their ID and off you go and Merry Christmas,” she added. “It was thorough, but it was easy. And it was so much more dignifying for the participants. It was immensely successful.”
In addition, committee members said they received positive feedback from Wal-Mart, who reported a drop in exchanges and returns and a shortened customer service line. Elenburg also commended the discretion exercised by the retailer.
From a donor standpoint, anyone can donate whatever they are able – from a young boy with $5 from his piggy bank or a corporation cutting a $2,500 check. Donations can be made in increments of $5, $10, $20 or $100.
Brookshire’s Food and Pharmacy also jumped on board with a food drive, which they intend to continue this year so that organizers “are able to bring Christmas to the whole family.”
The grocery store has pre-sacked items of all price ranges that customers can simply pick off a shelf and purchase. The purchased items are stored until Bridgeport 4-H members sort and assemble boxes of food.
While the system proved effective from a coordination standpoint, perhaps most redeeming is the success on a personal level.
One benefactor, a single mom of a 5-year-old boy whose husband passed away unexpectadly last year said:
“I just wanted to know that your program has been the answer to my prayers … This year for Christmas, all (my son) asked for was a new pair of jeans, a football and a Cowboys’ jersey. This will probably be hard for you to believe, but I could not afford to buy those things for him. I can’t tell you how much it means to make my son’s Christmas wishes come true – especially after the really hard year we have had. I’ve been praying for help and because of people who donated to the Spirit of Christmas, I have a renewed faith in the kindness of complete strangers.”
Another, an individual whose income was reduced significantly after losing one job and landng another, much-less paying job added:
“I have worked my whole life and have never had to ask for charity or assistance … I knew we would not have extra money for Christmas, so I prepared to break the news to our three children … A friend told me about your program, so I applied and our family was approved for help. I want you to know that my wife and I just spent two hours having a wonderful time picking out toys and clothes for our kids. This will be our only chance to go Christmas shopping, so we wanted to enjoy every moment. As a matter of fact, for the first time in a long time, I have hope that things might be turning around for my family.”
Another benefactor was a grandmother shopping for her grandkids, whose mother “got mixed up with drugs and is in jail.”
“Would it be OK if I spent just a little bit to buy wrapping paper?,” she asked. “I’m on a fixed income, and I sure don’t have any extra money to buy Christmas presents. It was just going to break my heart to tell these kids that Santa would not be coming to our house this year. They’ve had so many disappointments already, I worried that this Christmas was going to be another one. So what I want to do tonight after I get home and put the kids to bed is sit by myself and admire all of the things that I got to pick out for them today. Then I want to wrap these presents in real wrapping paper – not newspaper … Oh, what joy this brings to my heart.”
She also asked that committee members hug and send her love to the “kind folks who gave the money that made this possible.”
But committee members contend the benefactors are not the only ones gaining from this initiative.
“During the holiday season, we get busy and everything is hustle and bustle. Being involved in the Spirit of Christmas, you take a step back and reflect on the essence of the holiday,” Elenburg said. “From the volunteers who help, to the gratitude of those being helped to the citizens and businesses of Bridgeport that made this happen. Our people pull through every single time. This is a fabulous community.”
BRIDGEPORT SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS
Sponsor an angel on the trees at any of the town’s four banks, City Hall or Chamber of Commerce beginning Nov. 21 through Dec. 7.
Angels will also be available for sponsorship at the Home for the Holidays in downtown Saturday, Dec. 8.
According to committee members, 250 applications were distributed.