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Mission to give: philanthropy key for Cris Willis at Parsons
Moments CoverNovember 4

About this article

This article was originally published in the November/December 2015 issue of M: North Atlanta magazine, a publication of the Forsyth County News. To read the entire magazine, click here.

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Even those who have lived in Forsyth County for just a short amount of time have probably visited the iconic local store Parsons.

For those who haven’t, a special treat awaits — especially since this time of year means its incredible Christmas shop is open.

Wandering around Parsons and its connecting Christmas winter wonderland, it is easy to see why it’s celebrating its 90th anniversary. It’s an occasion so momentous, store officials decided to celebrate all year.

“We are family owned and operated and we love being a part of this community,” said Cris Willis, owner and family member of Parsons. “So many of our associates have been here much longer than I have. The environment here is amazing.”

Willis said she married into the family business, which was started by her husband Gary’s great-grandparents. The store has been in Cumming for 69 years.

Parsons is well known for its unique gifts, home furnishings, dining accessories, handbags, clothing and, of course, jewelry. Perhaps most notably, it features a collection of Brighton jewelry and accessories.

Founded by Jerry and Terri Kohl in 1991, Brighton is also a family-owned and -operated business that shares many of the same values as Willis and her family.

“We have been carrying Brighton for years and Jerry is such an amazing person,” she said. “He has such a great heart and does so much for worthy charities. He has really inspired me.”

Years ago, Willis said Kohl encouraged her to find a local charity to support.

“I decided I wanted to support a local charity that was active in supporting Africa.”

A friend introduced Willis to Connie Cheren, co-founder of Partners for Care. Willis said Cheren’s passion for the children and people of Kenya was contagious — so much so, it inspired her to visit Africa with the organization.

But even prior to the trip, Willis was no stranger to volunteer work, having helped raise funds and awareness for childhood diabetes since her daughter was diagnosed with the disease in 1997.

She served as a support group leader with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and The Walk for Diabetes for more than 10 years.

Her husband helped start the Diabetes Camp Kudzu in Georgia, which their daughter attended at age 9 the year it opened. She now volunteers there, some 16 years later.

After her trip to Africa, Willis worked diligently to raise money and awareness for Partners for Care.

“The amazing thing about PFC and what they do is they are all about empowering nongovernment organizations that work directly with the Kenyan people to try to decrease the number of children who are dying from preventable diseases,” she said.

Then, three years ago, Willis attended a Christian Women’s Business Leadership Seminar and the message was all about using a business platform as a personal mission ground.

“It really resonated with me,” she said. “I thought we are so blessed to have this business, and since I email more than 30,000 people a week, it occurred to me what a huge platform that is.”

The more Willis thought about it, the more excited she got about what she could do when it came to supporting local charities and their causes. After much thought and prayer, Willis created Parsons on Mission, which highlights numerous local charities and non-profit organizations — a different one every month.

“My dream was to bring awareness to our customers about what needs are out there,” Willis said. “In most cases, people want to help, but so often they don’t know what to do, what the charities are and what their needs are.”

Willis said she emails customers (sign up for the blasts on Parsons’ website), about what charity or organization Parsons on Mission is highlighting and customers can show their support accordingly.

Often customers can donate as little as $5 to the charity and receive a $5 coupon redeemable at Parsons.

“It is such a simple way for our community to come together and support these worthy and amazing organizations,” Willis said.