The Johnson County Christmas Bureau’s holiday store has been bringing holiday cheer for low-income residents since 1978, but this year, they’re facing a big problem.
The organization has been unable to find a space to set up the temporary store.
The bureau needs donated space in Johnson County that’s between 25,000 and 50,000 square feet—such as an old grocery or big box store space—with bathrooms and at least 150 parking spaces. The building also must be legal to occupy. They’re looking to move in Nov. 12 and back out Dec. 11.
The bureau carries its own liability insurance for the space and hires its own security. It can pay or some utilities, but “every dollar we spend is a dollar we do not have available to help our low- income neighbors,” said Larry Bigus, executive director of the Johnson County Christmas Bureau.
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In previous years, the store set up shop at the Great Mall of the Great Plains, now torn down, or Metcalf South. The latter no longer has utilities and so is not viable anymore.
According to Bigus, the organization has been turned away from 19 possible sites so far. They’re looking into 10 more sites, but they don’t have a deal on anything yet.
Part of the problem is that “the real estate market is more active,” Bigus said. “A lot of the empty buildings in town have recently been sold or leased.”
In addition to the increased activity, a lot of empty spaces have out-of-town owners.
“Local owners tend to be more generous than out-of-town owners,” Bigus said. “ Some of those sites are owned by out-of- town entities that are just not ready to donate space. Johnson County tends to be a very generous community.”
In addition, not every empty space meets the Christmas Bureau’s requirements. Warehouses have enough space inside but might not have enough parking, for example. Bigus said the bureau could even “get creative” and occupy adjacent strip mall spaces.
Before 2008, the bureau often set up in smaller spaces, but since the recession hit, it’s seen a surge in people needing services.
The bureau provides holiday assistance in the form of presents for children, food, toiletries and warm coats. Local agencies refer people who qualify, and all the clients go through a screening process.
Clients must be Johnson County residents living at least 150 percent below the federal poverty level. Bigus said that most clients have been at that level of poverty for two to four years.
Bigus estimated that in recent years, the bureau has helped between 12,000 and 14,000 people annually.
A typical client might be a single mom with kids who’s embarrassed to have to be there. “They come. ... because they need to take care of their children,” Bigus said.
When they come for their appointment at the store, they receive enough food for three meals a day for three days for their family as well as diapers, shampoo, paper towels, toothbrushes and children’s clothing and presents. Clients may make up to a $5 donation, but otherwise, the items are free.
All the items, except for bicycles, books and some coats, are new.
The bureau urges adults to take a gift for themselves, although Bigus said most clients are reluctant to do so.
Many of the volunteers who set up and staff the store are former clients.
Debbie Grillot of Olathe had three small children and worked full-time when her husband suffered a workplace injury. She had never even heard of the bureau, but that year, the bureau “meant Christmas for my kids and food on the table,” Grillot said.
They made just enough not to qualify for food stamps, but “in a lot of ways, we fell through the cracks,” she said.
That was about 20 years ago. Now, she volunteers for the bureau and guides people through the same process she went through as a client.
“I understand helping the clients,” Grillot said. “I was embarrassed that I had to use their service, initially. … I can see it on the faces on some of the people (who come in). Christmas Bureau helps those who don’t appear to need help.
“I think there’s a misconception that as long as people live in Johnson County, there’s no need. Oh yes, there is” Grillot said.