As we turn toward the Christmas season, our small group through College Church is turning its attention again towards the Christmas Store at Outreach Community Center in Carol Stream. For the fourth year, our group of twelve will come together to serve local, vulnerable families on Saturday, December 10.

We chose the Christmas Store for multiple reasons: we can serve together as a group, building community with one another; we believe in the vital ministries that take place year round through Outreach and this is just one way we can show our support; and, most importantly, the Christmas Store is an opportunity to serve the vulnerable families living in southeast Carol Stream. Beyond simply helping families have a merry Christmas, we are creating opportunities for individuals to encounter the Gospel. That’s powerful.

For those who don’t know much about the Christmas Store, I invite you to learn more. It begins with gift drives. Groups rally together to donate new toys and clothing, gift cards, exercise equipment and more from the Center’s wish lists. Gifts may even be sent via Amazon.com and Target.com (details at outreachchristmas.org)!

At the event, pre-qualified families from the southeast Carol Stream neighborhood are invited to shop the gifts at a savings of 75-percent-off retail price. Parents may purchase two gifts per child (0-18 years old), and grandparents may purchase one gift per child. I’ve been asked, why do families purchase the gifts at all? Why not give them to the children outright? It’s a great question. By selecting and purchasing their own gifts, Outreach is ensuring the dignity of each family. In turn, all proceeds from the event are designated to Outreach Community Center’s case management services, which helps local families throughout the year who need emergency financial assistance. It’s a win-win!

The first year our small group volunteered, we served as Shopper Helpers. In this volunteer position, you are paired with customers and help guide them through the Store, which is set up in the gymnasium at Outreach Community Center. What an experience! In the beginning, I felt some trepidation, nervous about how I would relate and unsure of what I could contribute. But I quickly realized that the families who are shopping are not that different from my own: we are all trying to do our best for our children. And it turns out, the parents and grandparents were a little nervous, too! Here was my chance to come alongside another parent and help them do something good for their kids and make the most of this opportunity. As we walked through the gym, from table to table, I would get to know a little bit about their children—their ages and interests—and I would help guide their hunt for the best toys for their budget. There was real joy and pride as parents or grandparents found the perfect gift. I was reminded time and again that the Christmas Store is about so much more than simply giving a gift. This is a great way to bring people together, to serve them, to introduce them to the ministries offered at the Center and to share with them the real meaning of Christmas. If just one person is introduced to the Gospel through this event, it’s a win.

There are many volunteer opportunities at the Christmas Store, not just Shopper Helpers. Our small group has also served behind-the-scenes as parking lot attendants and gift wrappers. While there is no direct interface with the customers while you’re wrapping up a gift, it still brings joy to know that in a couple weeks, a child will be opening that present and experiencing his or her own joy.

And that opened gift will be cherished long after the decorations are packed away, so I have learned. These gifts are stories that children can share with their peers when they return to school after the holiday break. These gifts include sporting equipment, that helps children stay active and healthy. These gifts include educational tools, to help youth succeed in school. These gifts develop cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being through play. These gifts include coats, pajamas and clothing, helping children and youth stay warm through the winter months. These gifts are so much more than material objects—they are the gift of hope and they provide new opportunities for local families who are vulnerable.

I hope you will join my family and my small group this year in supporting the Christmas Store. Whether you choose to make a personal financial contribution, hold a gift drive or volunteer, please know that your investment will make a lasting impact on our neighbors who are vulnerable this Christmas season.