By NICK DIAMANTIDES
The spirit of giving was evident all over the Long Beach-Signal Hill area during the last couple of weeks as churches and other organizations in the region provided free Christmas presents to thousands of needy families. The Signal Tribunewas not able to cover all the local gift events, but this article focuses on two that took place last Saturday in the downtown Long Beach area.
The second annual One Day Christmas Store began at 10am at the First Congregational Church on 241 Cedar Ave. Hundreds of struggling families from throughout Long Beach were invited to come to this special “Christmas store” to shop for gifts for their family members– at no charge. Everything was free.
Better Balance Long Beach, the First Congregational Church, Long Beach Rescue Mission and an army of donors and volunteers, including Long Beach Mayor Bob and Nancy Foster, coordinated the event. Invitees were given the opportunity to donate, but donations were not required or expected.
Early that morning a crowd of volunteers created a festive, Macy’s-like atmosphere in the church facility. Tables were laden with a large selection of brand new gifts and the merchandise was divided into two “stores.” The adults in the family chose gifts for their children at the larger store. In a smaller, separate store, the children got to choose gifts for the adults in their family. There were even wrapping stations so each gift could be wrapped and readied for Christmas morning.
Jack Smith, one of the founding members of Better Balance for Long Beach, outlined the history of the event. “This is our second year for the store. The previous three years we did parties at 14th Street Park. They became rather massive, so we were looking for a way to make it more controlled and serve many more people in a much more pleasant atmosphere,” he said. “Janet Rhodes of First Congregational Church and I were talking over lunch and said what if we tried a Christmas Store.”
It wasn’t long before Smith and Rhodes recruited Jim Lewis from the Long Beach Rescue Mission and began working together to make the store a reality. “Last year it worked great and we learned some things that enabled us to make it better this year,” Smith said. “We invited about 300 families last year. This year we have over 400 coming and we are giving gifts– two gifts per child– to about 1,200 kids and about 500 adults.”
Smith explained that the gifts were collected through cash donations with the help of purchasing expert Paula Nathan, who braved the wholesale district in Los Angeles to find gifts at wholesale. The total retail value of the gifts was over $100,000.
“All of the volunteer elves had a lot of fun and all of the children and adults left with smiles on their faces,” Smith said, noting that a total of about 200 volunteers showed up for the morning and evening shifts.
“In tough times like these, there are a lot of people down because they can’t afford to buy the gifts they want to buy,” said 6th Councilman Dee Andrews, one of the volunteers. “Today is going to be an up for lots of them because we are helping them have a beautiful Christmas.”
Long Beach Vice Mayor and 9thDistrict Councilman Val Lerch was also there to lend a hand. “We are here today giving out presents to families who are in need,” said Councilman Val Lerch. “It’s a cold, chilly day, but my heart is warmed by seeing the excitement of these families. This is fantastic.”
Signal Hill Councilman Larry Forester agreed. “This is a wonderful time to give back to needy families in the Long Beach-Signal Hill area,” said Councilman Forester, another volunteer. “I really enjoy being here, this is fun, not work.”
Annie Greenfeld, president of the Wrigley Association, also enjoyed being there. “This is fabulous, just watching the people walk out with so many gifts,” said Greenfeld. “It’s the best Christmas ever.”
Sarah Weatherford, a teenage volunteer, helped escort children to the store to get the gifts for their parents. “I loved doing this; the kids are so cute and they are so excited to pick out gifts for their parents. They couldn’t do it if they weren’t here.”
Sarah’s sister Kady added, “We love it because you see the families that are less fortunate being helped and the kids getting excited. It’s cool that we are making people happy by helping them get presents for each other.”
Ashley Moore, another teenage volunteer, enjoyed seeing how happy the kids got when they picked out gifts for their parents and grandparents. “It’s exciting to see how joyful the kids get,” said Moore. “It’s also great to see how happy the parents are that they get to pick out presents for their kids. During this economic crisis, it’s a joy to see so many people able to get something.”
The holiday event made it possible for young mom Andrea Wilchir to give her children gifts. “This is a blessing. I got to get my kids gifts and I think they will be very happy and thankful,” said Wilchir. She appreciated the store so much, she gave a donation to the church.
Lolita Perkins, another young mom, said, “This is wonderful. It makes me very happy because I didn’t have anything to give to my kids this Christmas, but now I have something to give them.”
Children were just as happy as their parents to be able to get into the gift giving spirit. “We got my mom a purse and a watch,” said Aoton Rollins, a teenage gift giver. “I feel good because I wouldn’t have been able to get her anything. Now everything is good and I feel good.”
Crishone Colston agreed. “I got an action lamp for my dad and an (electric) food chopper for my mom,” said Colston. “It feels good, because we couldn’t afford to get Christmas presents this year and now we got them for free.”
Well-known community activist Dan Pressberg also weighed in. “This is one of the premiere events for the whole city of Long Beach,” said Pressberg. “It’s one of the events where we can all give back. Not only is this about being selfless, but it’s about being able to give people that need it a hand up.”
The other gift giveaway in the downtown area took place at Christian Outreach in Action (COIA) at 515 East Third St. “We are a nonprofit, nondenominational agency that serves homeless and low-income people in Long Beach,” said Hilary Baker, acting executive director of the organization. “It is a true blessing to be here. It feels good to see these children getting toys. For some of them, the one toy we give them will be their only Christmas present. It is also very rewarding to see how many volunteers came out to help us. We had 90 volunteers working today.” She added that between 800 and 900 children received presents from COIA on Saturday.