Monday, September 25, 2006

More on relief and renewal. . .Christmas gifts

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.


Anonymous said...

Larry - Thanks for your message. I needed it today. I have been thinking too much about "me" today and your words have redirected me. I appreciate you so much.

David D.

Larry James said...

Thanks for your post, David.

When are we going to find the time to share a cup of coffee? I'd love to see you.

Anonymous said...

That's just so typical of do-gooders, isn't it? So much more into the feeling of giving than the actual pursuit of justice.

I hear the same thing happened after Katrina. The Food Bank needed money to secure food. What did people do? Go to Sam's to buy their own food so that they could drop it off. Even though it resulted in about 90% less food.

Too bad you had to cancel the store. How did the shoppers react?


Anonymous said...

What a great message - the second half of the story. Thank you.

I'm a bit surprised at the reluctance of people to give cash. I would have assumed the opposite. I must confess that due to my selfishness with my time, there are occassions with food, toy, clothing drives, etc., that I ask "can I just give some cash?" because I haven't had a chance to go to the store. I would have thought it would be more difficult to motivate people to "get involved" than to just write a check.


Clint said...

I'm actually approaching this idea from both angles. I know of some families in need here in Tulsa that I would like to help. My wider family, who will be at our house for "Christmas" on Thanksgiving weekend, is wanting to instill giving values to all of our kids by helping those families in need. Therefore, we're trying to find a solution that is both very beneficial to families in need as well as more personal and experience oriented than just writing a check. I would imagine many families will be facing this dilemma this Christmas season. Any advice for us?

Larry James said...

Clint, thanks for the question.

We really must work on two levels here, right? One has to do with seeing economic development and opportunity grow for low-income persons. This is a justice matter. The other has to do with compassion and grace while we await a better overall situation for those at the bottom.

For a number of years now, my family has agreed to forego purchasing gifts for one another so that we could support the Salvation Army's Angel Tree program. We select our angels which provide a profile of a child with their Christmas "wish list." We then purchase what the children tell us they want and need. We never see the children or their families, which is best. We find this to be a good exercise for all of us--adults and children.

Across the years we have found that training children regarding compassion and justice requires lots of conversation and action. Some acts will be of the Good Samaritan type. Others will involve us in policy matters. All the while, we must be willing to draw our children into the matters at hand by explanation and by bringing them with us to the points of engagement.

Clint said...

Thanks Larry. You said in your original post:

"Placing parents in a position to provide for their own children is far better than stepping in and giving in their place."

I agree 100% with you. We found the same principle to be true in Uganda when we lived there.

I wonder, though, and am thinking out loud here. Could the giving be involved, for example, with a personal scholarship for a local community college that could help prepare the parent to better provide for her children? It seems like we could be creative with our Christmas giving while providing needed opportunities at the same time. And since these families in need are also church related, I wonder if our church would be well served to raise money to start a community college / benevolent scholarship fund that the benevolent leaders could administer? Like I say, I'm just thinking out loud here.

Your last two posts have really hit home with me as my wife and I are striving to bring up our 7, 5 and 2 year old children to be all about love, compassion and justice. We know it will not happen just in a one time giving situation but must be a constant value in our lives.

At the same time, this is the first year our wider family will not be exchanging names but rather giving love and compassion through other means. So, this situation makes it a little unique. Your advice is well received as we think through how best to do this.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Larry - One way we have tried to teach our children the importance of "giving" occurs each Sunday at our church service. During each service there is a time when the children come forward and make a money "offering". We used to simply give each of our children a dollar to take up to the collection. After thinking through what our kids were getting out of it, we decided instead of just giving them a dollar during church to offer, we asked our children to take a dollar out of their weekly allowance and make the "offering". By doing this we hope they gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of "giving". I hope it is working!

And, yes, Larry, I will be calling you to buy you a cup of coffee, since I missed our lunch.
David D.

Larry James said...

Clint, I like your scholarship idea! That combines both elements in a very powerful manner.

David, thanks for the input. I look forward to the coffee.

Rhonda said...

We operate our Christmas Store in a different fashion. We ask those who wish to help to purchase new toys of certain types and within a stated price range, leaving the toys unwrapped and with the price tags still attached. (Cash is also accepted!) Families can take their children to purchase the gifts and teach them the joy of giving to others.

On the given day of the "Store," we sell the toys at a steep discount (I'm not sure, but I'm thinking it's 25% of the tagged price - so a 75% discount.)
The shoppers have the pride of having purchased gifts for their children. Obviously we haven't tried to do this on the type scale you're accustomed to at CDM, but it's worked fairly well here.

Larry James said...

Rhonda, thanks for the post.

This is the approach we have adopted since the earlier version went away. It works fairly well.

Of course, what is lost is the amazing number of hours of really effective and important community service work. The projects turned out to be valuable training for people, many of whom found jobs as a result of their service hours in our Community Service Corps.