Tusky Valley program makes spirits bright for area families

Tusky Valley program makes spirits bright for area families

Image Credit: Lori Feeney

Affordable Christmas gives families so many discounts and Christmas gifts that they might as well toss in a partridge in a pear tree.

The annual event, which began five years ago, was created by two Tusky Valley teachers looking for a way to help parents for whom buying holiday gifts would pose a hardship.

“All of our schools were doing something different for our families,” said Karolewski, an intervention specialist at Tusky Valley Primary School and event co-founder along with Sarah Schoeppner. “So Sarah and I approached Mr. Murphy and asked if we could streamline what we were doing, and he said, ‘Go for it.’”

An invitation-only event, Affordable Christmas allows parents from approximately 150 families to purchase new gifts at a fraction of the retail price. Families are chosen based on need, using information provided by teachers, staff and the 18 churches comprising the Tusky Valley Ministerial Association.

“The most expensive items here are $8,” Schoeppner said. “And an $8 gift is worth $60.”

Brand-name Barbie dolls can be had for a dollar. Popular games, doll houses, action figures, toy trucks and other typically pricey items go for less than $7.

The gifts are purchased with donations from a number of area businesses and churches eager to help. “Our staff donates a lot too,” Schoeppner said.

In fact, Tusky Valley staff members make up the lion’s share of the volunteers who work the event.

Parents of primary and intermediate school children purchase three gifts for each of their children, naughty or nice.

“They also get socks, underwear, gloves and hats for each child,” said Dixie Chumney, a sixth-grade language arts teacher who works the event as a personal shopper, helping parents select their gifts.

“Those items are generously donated by area churches,” Schoeppner said. Other free goodies include a free Tusky Valley shirt and free stocking stuffer.

Middle school and high school students place orders ahead of time, and their gift bags are ready for parents to pick up the day of the event.

“It’s very difficult to stock our shelves with the things they want,” Schoeppner said.

The program has made the season brighter for parents like Stephanie Westfall of Bolivar, who shopped the Dec. 6 event after working 16 hours overnight.

“She’s a hard-working mother, and we want to give them a helping hand up, not a hand out,” Karolewski said.

“This has actually helped a lot at Christmas,” said Westfall, the mother of five. “Whenever I do my Christmas shopping, I wait until after coming here.”

Parents also can make a quick stop at the gift-wrap room, where volunteers get their purchases under-the-tree ready with paper and bows.

Each family also leaves with a bag containing laundry detergent, toilet paper and other household products.

“If anyone is raising a baby, we give them a bag with diapers, wipes, an outfit and two toys for just $5,” Karolewski said.

“By asking parents to pay a small amount for their items, we can help them provide gifts for the children with a sense of dignity,” said Mark Murphy, Tusky Valley superintendent.

Participation in the program also requires a sense of responsibility on the part of the parents invited. “We require the parents to RSVP,” Schoeppner said. “We’re not going to nag them to come because it’s up to them to take responsibility for their family.”

Coinciding with Affordable Christmas each year is a food pantry at the Bolivar United Methodist Church, where families drive up to the door and receive four bags bursting with groceries.

St. John United Church of Christ in Bolivar also opens its Clothes Closet that day for parents to purchase gently used and new clothing at garage-sale prices.

“We’re really thankful for the generosity of the community,” Schoeppner said. “The churches and local businesses donate so much to make this possible.”

“We want to empower our families and the community,” Karolewski said. “Parents won’t get everything they need here, but this helps them give their children more than they would be able to otherwise.”