This article appears in the November issue of 400 Life.
While Santa and his helpers aim to spread Christmas cheer throughout the world, one entity in Forsyth County brings the holiday tradition to the working poor.
In its fifth year, The Place of Forsyth will produce its annual Holiday House. Hosted by Freedom Tabernacle Church in Cumming, Holiday House is a Christmas shopping experience for families who are 200 percent above the poverty level, said Joni Smith, president and chief executive office of The Place of Forsyth.
“These are parents who could work in our schools and grocery stores,” she said, explaining many parents worry about finding the extra funds to buy Christmas presents. “Holiday House eliminates that stress by providing a place for parents to select gifts for their children with dignity.”
Holiday House — The Place of Forsyth
When: Dec. 16-19
Where: Freedom Tabernacle Church, 2160 Freedom Parkway, Cumming
Heading up Holiday House is Naomi Byrne, youth programs coordinator for The Place of Forsyth, and a dedicated committee described as The Elf Squad. Byrne said she looks forward to coordinating the effort every year.
“It’s my favorite time of year,” she said, explaining the volunteer effort has become a family tradition for her, her husband and her two sons. “My boys come home from college and they help. And my husband helps, too.”
Having helpers is essential to implementing Holiday House since it takes months of planning. More than 700 volunteers create the retail-size store complete with holiday music, decorations and the selections of gifts.
Planning begins in October when families register for Holiday House. To qualify, families provide their income and documents of residency. Once approved, they are given a specific day and time to shop.
On the first qualification day, 117 families registered, Smith said. Last year, Holiday House provided gifts to more than 2,000 children. Smith expects the number to increase to 2,500.
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In October, The Place of Forsyth reaches out to churches, businesses, schools and individuals to buy or collect toys for Holiday House. Local elementary schools are enlisted to wrap large donation boxes, which are spread throughout the county.
Hundreds of volunteers are enlisted to help with the pre-planning, actual event days and post-event for cleanup and inventory. Volunteers may sign up online through The Place of Forsyth’s website, which allows them to select a time, date and function. Volunteer categories include set up and toy pickup, snack drop off for the waiting and volunteer rooms, or event positions as greeters, personal shoppers, stockers and room attendants.
A four-year volunteer veteran, Wendy Goodrow has done it all, and one job stands out.
“My favorite part is being the greeter and telling people how it works,” said Goodrow, who serves on the board of directors for The Place of Forsyth. “And I love taking volunteers to their positions and explaining how it works.”
All volunteers for Holiday House are trained before the event, leading to a smooth-run operation.
“And we decorate it from top to bottom to look like Christmas,” Byrne said. “We even play music.”
The difference between a traditional retail store and Holiday House are clients use points instead of money to pick toys and personal shoppers assist clients.
“One person tallies the points for each gift, and another collects the toys and places them inside a large bag,” Smith said. “The bag is put into their car or Uber or taxi, so children don’t see the toys selected. Now they can go home and hide the gifts and wrap them for their children.”
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Organizations and individuals set up toy drives or purchase their own and donate them to Holiday House. In recent years, a wish list was established on Amazon to allow donors to purchase gifts online and have it shipped to The Place, Byrne said.
Once donations arrive, volunteers inventory every item.
“We had about 30,000 different items last year,” Smith said. “We keep them all in a spreadsheet. It helps us to know what comes in and what goes out. The Place is an excellent steward of all donations.”
The inventory list helps volunteers organize the gifts into their separate rooms based on children’s ages and genders. For example, one room will be designated for elementary school boys and another for girls.
“The teen room always needs a little extra, though,” Byrne said. “It’s always hard to find the right gift for them.”
Gift cards in increments of $25 seem to work well. It allows teens to select their preferred gift.
Holiday House accepts gaming systems and gently used bicycles, both in good condition, Byrne said.
The Place of Forsyth hosts an Open House to showcase the community’s efforts. This year, it’s Friday, Dec. 13.
“Without the community, we could not do this,” Byrne said.
Finally from Dec. 16-19, Holiday House opens its door to let the Christmas tradition begin. It is there that the volunteers see the face of poverty, Smith said.
“When we think of poverty, we think of people on the street who are begging or living in a shelter,” Smith said. “We don’t think of the people checking us out at big-box stores or serving us at our favorite restaurant. But that’s who is here. So when I see that light bulb turn on for our volunteers, it affected me deeply. I see a life changing experience for the volunteers.”
For Woodrow and Byrne, they see the difference they make for the clients. Woodrow said she can imagine children of the clients bounding down stairs and into family rooms to see the presents under the tree.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to wake up and realize all of the families are experiencing that joy on Christmas morning because of Holiday House,” she said.
Story by J.K. Devine for 400 Life.