Becky tried to act happy. But all she felt was disappointment.

Growing up with a single mom, her family didn’t have much extra cash. So when Christmas approached, Becky’s mom visited the local firehouse where pre-wrapped Christmas gifts were offered to families who were struggling financially. Her mom selected a large box with shiny paper and a pretty bow and placed it under the tree. “I couldn’t wait to open that present,” says Becky, who was in middle school at the time. “But as I tore off the paper on Christmas morning, I realized it was a play tea set—a gift for a little girl much younger. I tried to hide my disappointment, but I knew my mom could tell.”

Becky, now an adult, recounts that story with admiration for her mother. “She did so much to make my growing up years as safe and normal as possible,” she says. “She sacrificed so much for me.”

From Disappointment to Action

When Becky’s mom told the story about the Christmas present to someone at the Outreach Community Center in Carol Stream (OCC), where she and Becky found support through youth programs and case management, Vanessa Roth, then-OCC director, knew something had to be done. “We realized that many families in our neighborhood were unable to purchase new Christmas gifts for their children,” says Vanessa. “It was important to preserve each family’s dignity by creating a program that would allow each parent to select gifts that are appropriate and enjoyable for their children, just at a more affordable rate.”

The outgrowth of this idea was the Christmas Store at OCC, which began in 1995 and has been held annually ever since. This unique day honors the parents by offering a low-cost, supportive alternative to retail shopping.

Volunteers Make It Happen

How it works: Neighborhood families receive a special invitation to the one-day Christmas Store where they can purchase new Christmas gifts at a savings of 75% off the retail price. (The proceeds are used throughout the year to help families in crisis who need financial assistance from the case management programs at OCC.) Each shopper receives an appointment time to avoid long waiting times for the shoppers. Volunteers provide child care while parents shop from gifts that have been collected in Gift Drives throughout the area and donated to the event. Then, volunteers provide free gift wrapping while the parents enjoy Christmas music and refreshments in the hospitality room.

Held on the second Saturday of December each year, the Christmas Store annually serves 400 families who shop for 1,000+ children. Fifty churches, businesses, organizations, and families collect the 4,000 donated gifts to stock the store. It takes the collective effort of nearly 400 volunteers to help create this joy-filled day for the families.

Thanks to all the staff and volunteers who make the Christmas Store a success! And thanks to Becky and her mom for sparking an annual event that brings joy to so many.