Overland Park & Leawood

Christmas tree funds provide aid for area residents

Several Johnson County cities are playing Santa Claus this year.

But instead of placing toys under Christmas trees, they’re helping area residents in need.

Cities such as Olathe, Overland Park, Shawnee and Prairie Village raise money using Christmas tree funds every year to distribute to local charitable organizations.

In Olathe, the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund has become a force to be reckoned with. It has already raised $75,000 and the city expects the fund to meet its goal of $110,000 by the end of the month. The city accepts donations from area businesses and residents from around Thanksgiving until Dec. 31.

This year, proceeds will benefit 15 area charities, such as the Johnson County Christmas Bureau and the Olathe Special Olympics.

Checks will be presented to each organization at the first council meeting in February.

The Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund was originally started several years ago by the Olathe Optimist Club and annually raised around $5,000. But the numbers started to skyrocket in 2007, after Mayor Michael Copeland established a special board to oversee the fund. That first year, it raised more than $25,000.

Charities are chosen after a careful review by the board. It looks for organizations that serve the most critical needs of Olathe children, such as shelter, food, clothing and emergency assistance.

With the board’s campaigning, several fundraisers have been created throughout the years to benefit the fund.

Eggstravaganza, held in November, features celebrity waiters, such as elected officials, serving dinner to patrons at the Olathe First Watch.

Olathe restaurants participating in Dining Out for Kids, held in October, donate 10 percent of their proceeds that day to the fund.

The fund will soon reach its $500,000 mark since its transformation six years ago.

“Not only do we meet our goals, we exceed them,” said Karen Hooven, assistant to the Olathe mayor. “Our board has the biggest hearts and they work so hard. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

Even Olathe schools have gotten involved.

An annual sub-campaign called Pennies for Shoes raises thousands of dollars for the Children’s Shoe Fund, which provides shoe vouchers for Olathe kids in need.

Jugs are placed throughout each school for kids to drop coins. Last year, those coins added up to more than $19,000. This year, Hooven is excited to see the numbers.

“There’s nothing more heartwarming than kids helping kids,” said Hooven. “That intergenerational spirit of philanthropy is so important to us.”

She also points out its important people realize 100 percent of the donations go directly to the chosen charities. The fund has no overhead expenses. Businesses such as ALDI and Farmers Insurance have covered all printing and postage costs.

“Every penny you give goes directly to charity, which is a huge draw for people,” Hooven said. “And every penny counts. We’re thrilled to get the big checks, but we’re also just as excited for the smaller ones.”

That same sentiment is shared by city officials in Shawnee.

Mayor Jeff Meyers founded his city’s Christmas Tree Fund in 2006 because he wanted to make a difference in the community.

“Being an elected official and a teacher, I’ve seen an awful lot of people in need in Johnson County,” he said. “I realized I’m in the position to have a positive impact on these people.”

As in Olathe, this year the Shawnee Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund will benefit the Johnson County Christmas Bureau. It also will donate funds to Shawnee Community Services.

Meyers chooses charities based on what will specifically help Shawnee residents.

Since Thanksgiving, it already has raised more than $13,000, but Meyers expects it will reach the $15,000 mark by mid-January, when the 2013 campaign ends.

“People in Shawnee are warmhearted and gracious,” he said. “They go above and beyond when it comes to giving.”

In Prairie Village, the Mayor’s Holiday Tree Fund annually brings in around $10,000 to $15,000, even though it’s kept low-profile, said Quinn Bennion, the city administrator.

Run by the Prairie Village Municipal Foundation since 1986, the fund’s primary purpose is to help pay for utility assistance for low-income Prairie Village families. Once the quota is filled, the additional money raised is spent on providing recreational scholarships to needy Prairie Village families, such as pool passes, and financing home and yard repairs for income-eligible residents.

Businesses and residents mail donations to City Hall from Thanksgiving to Dec. 31.

“In every community, there are people in need, whether its medical bills that put them in that position or a stint of unemployment,” said Bennion. “This is a great way to help your neighbors in Prairie Village. It’s all about putting dollars back into the community.”

This year, Overland Park also did well with its Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony fund.

At the lighting ceremony, Mayor Carl Gerlach presented Friends of JCDS with a check for $5,410, one of the highest numbers raised by the fund so far, said Adam Schaumburg, the marketing and events director for the Downtown Overland Park Partnership, which oversees the event.

Friends of JCDS is an organization that raises money and awareness for Johnson County Developmental Supports, an agency that helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“This year the holiday spirit really shined through,” said Schaumburg. “The checks were pouring in and it was fun to watch. We’re hoping next year we can not only make the same amount, but exceed it.”

He added the mayor doesn’t always choose charities that solely benefit Overland Park, but sometimes ones that help the county as a whole.

It’s all about the community helping the community, Schaumburg said.

His words echo the premise behind every such fund in the county.

“We’re fortunate to live where we do, but even though a lot of people think of Johnson County as an affluent part of the country, there are still people in great need here,” said Meyers in Shawnee. “It’s staggering. All we can do is help.”