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Johnson County Christmas Bureau fills a need for the needy

Updated: 2013-12-11T16:37:04Z

By JENNIFER BHARGAVA

Special to The Star

“This is amazing.”

Those were the only words Kristie McMillen could utter when she saw the vast row of groceries gleaming before her eyes on Friday afternoon. The young Overland Park mom was allowed to take what her family needed, for free.

And it was only the beginning.

Tables boasting toiletries, children’s clothing, toys and books stretched as far as the eye could see in the former Marshall’s department store at the Great Mall of the Great Plains in Olathe.

All of the items are free to families down on their luck.

It is McMillen’s first year as a client of the Johnson County Christmas Bureau. With her 5-year-old son, Aiden, sleepily curled up with a blanket in the front of her cart, she shopped for items her family desperately needed this time of year. Cereal. Wrapping paper. Warm pajamas for her sons.

In front of her and behind, dozens of other men and women stood alongside shopping carts and bureau volunteers as they browsed through items.

McMillen never imagined herself in this position.

Her husband has a full-time job as an assistant manager of a restaurant. But his paycheck covers their apartment rent and not much else. They were able to make ends meet until this year caught up with them.

Their gas was turned off. They don’t own a car. McMillen has found it nearly impossible to find an evening job. The couple couldn’t afford childcare for her two preschool-age children if she took one during the day. With Christmas quickly approaching, they worried there wouldn’t be presents under the tree for their sons this year.

“We knew coming into December it was going to be tough,” McMillen said. “It’s been sitting on my shoulders pretty heavily. So today was a huge blessing.”

Needing help has been humbling for the family. McMillen was even a little nervous about going to the Christmas shop.

“I feel so guilty being here — it feels weird,” she admitted. “But everyone has been really sweet and laid back. I’m so grateful.”

The Johnson County Christmas Bureau has been helping people like McMillen for 53 years.

The organization began as an adopt-a-family program in 1960 and opened its first Christmas shop in 1977 at the Metcalf 103 Shopping Center in Overland Park. It served 1,300 people.

This year, it will serve 13,000.

Every year, poverty-stricken clients are referred from different agencies. A representative from that family, usually a mother, is scheduled an appointment to “shop” for anything the family needs. Friday was the bureau’s first shopping day; the store closes for the season Saturday.

Everything is free. From gently worn coats to brand new toys, the options save a family’s Christmas.

Many of the clients have jobs, but earn minimum wage, said Barbara McNeile, the bureau’s executive director. The Christmas shop allows them to spend their meager earnings on paying bills and household necessities, rather than face panic during the holiday season.

The organization currently only has two paid staff members — McNeile and Rosie Brinker, an administrative assistant. It mostly relies on thousands of volunteers.

And without those people’s selfless hours throughout the year, the Johnson County Christmas Bureau would cease to exist, McNeile said.

Year-round, hundreds of volunteers work tirelessly to keep the organization afloat. Many of them sew lap blankets, quilts and festive sweatshirts. Volunteer “department heads” — in charge of specific needs like toys, clothing, coats — scour sales racks and keep track of inventory. Others raise money, box items and plan events, such as coat drives and pancake breakfasts.

The Johnson County Christmas Bureau’s major fundraiser is Holiday of Hope, a dinner and auction conducted in the fall. This year it helped raise $70,000. Smaller fundraisers raise less than $5,000.

The 2013 budget for the organization is $280,000.

Most of the money is focused on the shop itself. Seven of its eight storage locations are donated, helping out the organization immensely, said McNeile.

Without having to pay for storage space or a store location, and with the help of every volunteer, the Christmas bureau is able to focus its finances on helping the people it is dedicated to serving.

From November to mid-December, the number of volunteers skyrockets. Around 3,000 volunteers bustle their way through the organized chaos inside the makeshift store.

Earlier in November this year, a sea of middle school students filled the cluttered space one chilly afternoon, sorting groceries and unloading boxes from big white trucks.

As he maneuvered his way through the cardboard maze, California Trail Middle School eighth-grader Ben Kahnk was overwhelmed by the controlled chaos.

“This place is impressive,” he said, gazing at the mountains of boxes scattered across the vast floor. “It’s amazing how much time and energy goes into putting it all together.”

As the 14-year-old rushed off to unload more boxes of toys from the truck outside, he added, “It feels good to give other families the opportunity to have a nice holiday. It’s made me realize I’m lucky to have what I have.”

A few days later on a bitingly cold Saturday morning, 120 volunteers braved the harsh wind to complete the move-in. Several more trucks piled out front, with bundled-up volunteers emptying their contents and carrying them into the packed store.

Inside, several Boy Scouts from Troop No. 449 pushed carts, sorted boxes, and unloaded heavy items.

“Carrying around heavy boxes can be hard work, but it’s fun because I get to hang out with my friends and help out a good cause,” said Nick Bodine, a 16-year-old from Leawood. “It’s the best feeling in the world to know you’re making someone else happy.”

Fellow Scout Nick Johnston agrees.

“When I was a little kid, I used to be so excited to see presents under the tree,” said Johnston, an eighth-grader at Blue Valley Middle School. “I think every kid should have that feeling. That’s why I like helping out here.”

Their youthful muscles were greatly appreciated by the department heads.

With her aching knees and bad back, Karen Boyd, the toy department chairwoman, couldn’t have been more grateful for all the manpower.

And she’s glad the young volunteers understand the importance of helping out their own community.

“You’re helping people who could be your neighbor,” Boyd said. “It could be you. People lose jobs and things happen and you never know what life is going to throw at you. This is about helping people through rough times until they get back on their feet.”

The Lenexa resident got involved in the Johnson County Christmas Bureau 24 years ago when a friend encouraged her to join. She never imagined it would turn into a nearly full-time volunteer position.

Now, as the toy chairwoman, she starts her shopping for next year’s store at the after-Christmas sales. She’s constantly inventorying merchandise throughout the year.

She stocks her department with all the popular toys — Barbie dolls for the little girls and Legos for the boys.

This year her budget was $18,000.

“When you’re buying gifts for 5,000 kids, that kind of money doesn’t go very far, even if you hit every sale in town,” she said. “We rely heavily on donations.”

Each department, in fact, lives and breathes by those donations. Many come from Kansas City area residents. Others come from area companies.

This year, the bureau was showered with generosity. Hallmark donated thousands of items, ranging from ornaments to books. Happy Bottoms, a local diaper bank, provided 35,000 diapers. Delta Dental donated a toothbrush kit for every client who walks through the door. And those are just a few.

Over in the books department, chairwoman Judy Barnes was immensely grateful in particular for the Hallmark children’s books donations.

“When you give people food and clothes, that’s for today,” she said. “Books are for tomorrow. Books take you to another world, a place where you can escape your stress.”

Barnes, a retired English department chairwoman from Shawnee Mission East High School, has been volunteering at the Johnson County Christmas Bureau since 1996.

“In the first few years of volunteering, the books department consisted of only a few books on a table,” she said. “As a former English teacher, I was horrified. Every child deserves a book.”

She quickly rounded up a few neighbors, which soon turned into her entire neighborhood as the years passed.

This year, she has close to 60 neighbors helping out. They volunteer at the shop and collect thousands of donated books from school drives.

On a Saturday morning last month, Barnes and her volunteers tediously organized each book into a distinguishable order so there would be no confusion when clients arrived looking for age-specific reads.

Next door, in the nursing home department, volunteers also shuffled through clothing, blankets, handmade walker pockets and toiletries.

Representatives from 19 nursing homes in Johnson County stop by the shop to pick up items for 700 elderly residents living on Medicaid.

Matilda Rosenberg, the director of social work at Aberdeen Village, feels lucky Johnson County has an organization that recognizes senior citizens in need.

“They’re kind of forgotten,” she said. “If you live to be 100, you’ve probably outlived your friends and even your children. You’ve exhausted your financial resources. These gifts help them feel loved and cared for.”

She points out many of the elderly residents adore the hand-sewn walker pockets, which act as handbags placed on walkers, and lap blankets.

“To receive something fresh and new really brightens their life,” Rosenberg added. “A lot of loves goes into these items.”

As the morning wore on on move-in day, Lynn Barth, president of the Johnson County Christmas Bureau’s Executive Board, took a short break to put on her coat and warm up away from the door.

She’s still astonished that the organization has managed to maintain a successful shop over the last 36 years.

“Our growth has been a two-bladed sword,” she admitted. “We’re glad we’ve grown so much but we wish there weren’t so many people who need this kind of help.”

According to United Community Services of Johnson County, one in 15 Johnson County residents lives below poverty level, which means, for instance, a family of four is trying to make ends meet on $23,550 or less.

“Poverty is in our own backyard,” said McNeile, the bureau’s executive director. “There is still this whole stigma of Johnson County people being well-off and that there isn’t a need. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

Karen Wulfkuhle, the executive director of United Community Services, points out that there has always been poverty in Johnson County, but the numbers started to rise in the 2000s.

“During the recession, we saw a huge increase, but those numbers still haven’t come down,” she said.

“There are clearly still many people who haven’t seen an improvement.”

As the bureau continues to grow and help more people, it faces a couple of challenges.

The biggest one is finding a permanent warehouse space to both store donations and host the store.

Right now, donated items are scattered in seven different locations across Johnson County and even on the Missouri side.

“We feel like little squirrels,” McNeile said. “We’re storing toys over in this part of the county and clothes in this part. We truly need a storage space for everything, so we can see everything at once and have more control.”

The bureau also realizes that it might have to expand its staff from the two it has because its behind-the-scenes work has become so intense, she said.

Even with those struggles, however, the Johnson County Christmas Bureau has never lost focus on its primary goal: making clients happy.

While she made her way toward the exit with an overflowing shopping cart on Friday afternoon, McMillen declared herself one satisfied customer.

She’s thankful the organization was able to help her family out this year. And she plans on stopping by again, but next time on the other side.

“My family is going through a very difficult year and things will get better for us,” McMillen said. “When I get rich one day, I already know what I’m going to do: come back here and pay it forward.”

How to help

To volunteer or give to the Johnson County Christmas bureau, go to JCCB.org.

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