By SHANNON WATKINS
For those who know how to find it, there’s an old building in Pulaski County that conceals a secret. It has no air conditioning and not much ventilation. Irregular layers of paint have peeled or been gouged away on its walls over the years, leaving shapes that seem to outline fantastic, undiscovered continents. The glass of its single-paned windows is slightly milky as if suffering from cataracts. The immediate view outside them is of weeds, rubble and dumpsters.
The volunteers of the Pulaski County Christmas Store couldn’t be happier with it.
“Compared to what we did have…” says Christmas Store volunteer Jeanette Sheffey. “We used to be down there on Main Street by the thrift shop. And we had to like, suck in when somebody ran by you with a bag of clothes. There just wasn’t very much room at all. We’re in heaven.”
“We’re very, very blessed to have this,” says Nancy Robinson, another volunteer. “We’re very happy to have it.” The county is helping to restore the building somewhat, they reveal, which helps.
Now there’s several spaces to use as storage for presents and donations, neatly divided by category. “We have like, teenagers, and then we have the kids,” says Sheffey.
Christmas cheer, in the form of ornaments, tinsel, a tree and various other holiday-themed decorations, dots walls, tables and shelves throughout the place. This cheer should be at odds with its surroundings, but amid such purpose and determination, it isn’t.
Robinson, leading the way, points to areas stocked with both fun gifts and practical necessities like coats. In one, stacks of Candyland board games sit atop a table, across from brightly-colored kiddie books; in another, shelves of makeup and body spray await future distribution.
“This is remnants of what we had last year. And some things we’ve purchased ourselves through the year,” she says.
“We don’t usually give makeup unless it’s kinda hinted or it’s on the list,” Sheffey chimes in. “We don’t want to cross that line with parents.”
The Pulaski County Christmas Store, which is run entirely by volunteers, is a charitable group that helps bring Christmas to Pulaski County families who would otherwise be without it. Each year, they hold intake sessions for several days in September and early October to gauge need and see who needs help. Then, closer to the holidays, they allow parents to come in and pick out presents for their families. They even have a special Grandparent’s Day so that elders can come by and find something special for their grandchildren.
“We do serve newborn to age 18, as long as they’re in school,” says Christmas Store Board of Directors President Sally McCarthy. Each child receives pants, a shirt, a coat or shoes and two items, such as toys, CDs or jewelry, that they would like for Christmas.
Like Santa’s workshop, the store is hidden to all but those who need it (the police, however, keep a helpful eye on it). The volunteers, like Santa’s elves, are organized and enthusiastic; pragmatic about the nature of their work but gleeful about its outcome.
Sometimes they get donations from individuals, sometimes from businesses or churches; sometimes in the form of Christmas gifts and sometimes in the form of money. They don’t distribute food, although they do collaborate with organizations that do; and families being assisted by the Salvation Army for Christmas can’t be helped by the Christmas Store, too, so that more people countywide will get to have a merry Christmas.
Despite the hard work of its volunteers and eight years of helping the needy, the Christmas Store as an organization seems bafflingly unknown in Pulaski County. Members tell of residents who’ve gone to work at Montgomery County’s Christmas Store—because they had no idea there was one here at home that could have used their help.
Sitting around a table in a room casually strewn with decorations and a few future presents, the volunteers are brainstorming about what to offer for their upcoming silent auction with dinner and dancing at the Draper Mercantile. “We keep having people donate items,” says McCarthy happily. The volunteers are excited about the event and hope it will raise both money and awareness of their existence in the community.
Last year, the Christmas Store helped 1,064 children in the county, 78 of which were being raised by grandparents, a trend that has grown more prominent each year. Though they’re here for fundraising ideas, the volunteers can’t help but talk about the things they’ve seen. It’s not uncommon to see tears, or people who are working any and every job they can who still can’t make ends meet.
“I’ve done intakes with people who’ve just lost their jobs,” says Board Treasurer Heather Freeman. “I had one man who cried and said, ‘I cannot believe I have to be here.’ And I said, ‘You know, that’s why we’re here, we’re here to help you, whatever the situation.’ He said, ‘I just want my kids to have Christmas. I’m so thankful that you’re here. Because otherwise they wouldn’t get anything this year.’ It’s people that are trying, really trying.”
More stories of nearly-missed holidays and cheerful assistance circle the table, before the volunteers return to their mission, quietly but expectantly looking forward to another season of giving help, and hope.
The Pulaski County Christmas Store auction will be held at the Draper Mercantile Oct. 12 from 6 – 9 p.m. and is scheduled to include dinner and dancing. Tickets are $40 for individuals and $70 for couples; call the Draper Mercantile at 994-5659 for reservations.
The Pulaski County Christmas Store’s intake session to assess need and begin preparations for Christmas gift distribution will be held at Central Gym in Pulaski Sept. 14, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., Sept. 19, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m., Sept. 21, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., Sept. 26, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m., Sept. 28, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. and Oct. 5, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. Volunteers are needed for intake days.
To get an application, visit your local library or the Pulaski County Department of Social Services, or go online to www.pulaskicountychristmasstore.com. To volunteer or find out more about how you, your church, civic group, employer, etc., can get involved, visit the website listed above or call 553-1309.