During my first Christmas season at Central Dallas Ministries, a generous North Dallas church provided gifts for 125 low-income families. About a week prior to Christmas day the recipient families arrived to pick up their toys and packages.
The entire process was highly organized. Our building was large enough to accommodate about 25 families at a time. So, we hosted five different groups during our day-long party. The day was bitter cold. We served hot drinks and cookies and the families received large bags of toys and clothing that were labeled with their names to move the project along smoothly.
All in all, the day turned out to be a bitter/sweet experience for me.
On the one hand, the families were very happy to have a place to get gifts for their little ones. They were very polite and appreciative.
On the other, you could see and feel their embarrassment over having to stand in line and depend on others to provide for their own children. They had to accept what was given without any say or choice in the matter.
At the end of the day, I made an internal pledge that we would never do Christmas this way again at CDM.
The following year, during late summer, we kicked off a new process.
We began recruiting members to our newly formed "Community Service Corps." Members of the corps agreed to perform various acts of community service in schools, nursing homes, parks, and in a number of our locations around the city.
In exchange for their hard work CDM agreed to pay Corps members $10 per hour in "Christmas Store Bucks"--we printed our own money for this purpose! We kept careful payroll records on each member.
Then, in November, we began collecting new clothing, toys, sporting equipment and other gift items from supportive churches, civic clubs and interested individuals. About two weeks prior to Christmas day we opened our version of "Toys R Us" in our headquarters building.
That first year we recruited 109 members for our Community Service Corps. We had a great payday celebration and the members came into our store and spent their hard earned money to purchase toys, clothing, household items and other gifts for their children and family members.
The store operated exactly like a store. We gave away nothing. Every item was priced for sale. Every shopper chose the gifts they wanted to buy for their children and loved ones. The entire project turned out to be a great success.
Our store was not about charity. Only a sense of pride as the result of three months of hard and significant work that paid off.
The next year we employed 226 Corps members. The third year we signed up almost 400 workers.
During that third year, we learned a very important and fundamental lesson about retail. If you have purchasing power of almost $250,000 coming into your store, you need about three times that much inventory to take care of customer demand and the issues of product choice!
After that third year, we realized that we needed to make a few important changes. What we wanted to do was to ask our supporters in the churches, civic clubs and other organizations to simply donate cash so that we could change our payroll process in an important way. Instead of paying our Corp members with money we printed for use in our "Christmas Store," we needed to purchase gift certificates for our team members from local retailers like Target, Marshalls and the real Toys R Us. We knew that we could buy them at a significant discount thanks to the number of gift certificates we would need.
The problem we encountered was disappointing. Our supporters didn't want to give us money. Rather, they wanted to buy toys and other gifts. They wanted the experience of shopping for the poor with their own families.
As a result, we discontinued our Community Service Corps and our "Christmas Store."
One story from our experience I will never forget.
There was a little boy, about 10 or 11-years-old, who had been left with neighbors for Christmas. His family had returned to Mexico to attend to family business--an illness, as I remember it. They had to leave him behind due to limited funds.
Toward the end of store hours one evening, 3 or 4 women who knew the little boy and his situation approached our store manager and asked if the store could give the little boy a bicycle.
The manager explained that we were running a store and that we didn't give toys away.
As she discussed the situation further, she noticed that the women appeared to be finished with their own shopping, but each still held Christmas Store money in their hands.
She asked the women if they had finished their shopping. They told her that they had. She then suggested that they pool their left over funds and buy the little boy, their neighbor, the bike they knew he wanted.
This is exactly what they did! How proud they were and, I am sure, the little boy was thrilled and grateful for such good friends.
According to Saint Paul, Jesus once told his followers that "it was more blessed to give than to receive."
If that is true, and I believe it is, an even greater good is any act that places another person in a position where he or she can act as the giver.
Placing parents in a position to provide for their own children is far better than stepping in and giving in their place.
Renewal is more demanding than relief, but the pay off in community development and health is more than worth the cost and effort.