On Saturday, about a hundred volunteers unloaded trucks full of food, clothes and gifts to start stocking the Johnson County Christmas Bureau’s temporary store at the Great Mall of the Great Plains.
The Christmas Bureau has provided an abundant holiday season for innumerable area families since its inception in 1960. This year it will provide 3,350 families — that’s 12,500 individuals — with groceries, personal care items, holiday gifts and coats without charging them a cent.
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“Our goal this year was to serve 150 more families than last year,” said Barbara McNeile, Executive Director of the Christmas Bureau. “Poverty has grown so much in the county. If we had the combination of a larger budget and the logistical ability to serve more, we absolutely would.”
The organization started more than 50 years ago as an “adopt-a-family” program. Throughout the year, more than 100 people volunteer to fill the nondenominational shop with new items.
“The majority of our items impact sustenance and warmth and we’re at the point now where we require a minimum of 50,000 square feet,” said McNeile. “This is a second year in a row the Great Mall and Block and Co. have been kind enough to donate the (65,000 square foot) space. We filled every inch of it last year and we will again this year.”
This year the Johnson County Christmas Bureau will set up and decorate the shop Nov. 29 through Dec.1 and the shop will be open to preapproved clients Dec. 2 through 11. “We are putting a face on those who are struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis,” said Betty Athey, the Christmas Bureau’s department chairwoman of client services. “We hope to bring some joy into the lives of those who shop. At the same time, the awareness of the needs of the community will be raised by the 3,000 volunteers who work at the shop over the nine days we are open.”
The Christmas Bureau’s clients are all recommended through social and county agencies, as well as schools, churches and other community organizations, and then they fill out an application. The Christmas Bureau sets up a shopping appointment in which one family member walks through the shop with a personal volunteer assistant, collecting food, new clothing, hygienic products, new gifts and coats for each family member. At maximum capacity, 22 clients go through with 22 volunteers every half hour.
“Johnson County has about 38,000 people receiving public assistance at this time,” said Jim Owens, the Christmas Bureau’s board president. “People just don’t think that Johnson County, being the affluent area that it is, has this great need. But there is a growing need. There are so many people that have unusual circumstances, who never thought they’d need public assistance, who are having to receive it right now.”
With unemployment rates remaining high, social service agencies have seen increases upwards of 15 to 20 percent more people qualifying for help in the past year, said Athey. Additionally, many community organizations are cutting back their holiday programs in order to provide more essential necessities.
“Several sister agencies have had to drop out of providing certain aspects due to budget constraints,” Owens said. “And that’s one of our problems, we have a good size budget but we cannot take care of all 38,000 people in Johnson County living in poverty.”
However, what the Johnson County Christmas Bureau can do through the monetary and material donations of the community is give a family of four — from babies to senior citizens — an average of about $350 worth of groceries and new merchandise. Shoppers choose their families gifts themselves so everyone can celebrate the season with a little something extra.
“Gifts aren’t everything,” said Cheryl Gettinger, department chairwoman of adult gifts. “The fact is that people come in and get several nice meals. They physically leave with a grocery cart, or two, full of things they need.”
Most of the Christmas Bureau’s buyers shop year round, hitting the major department stores during mega-sales to maximize the bang for their buck.
“I’m a super shopper,” said Karen Boyd, department chairwoman of toys. “I do most of my shopping January to March because that’s when the biggest sales are. I’ve been volunteering for 21 years and I love helping people get the specific toy their child wants for the holidays. Clients of the Christmas Bureau come from all walks of life, and it’s unbelievable, the stories you hear, but I know what comes around goes around and people who used to be struggling get back on their feet and start giving back.”