When Nancy Riess started a gift tree for needy children at the Galloway Township ShopRite store a decade ago, she and her three daughters made handmade Christmas pins and attached tags with 200 kids' names, ages, sizes and wish lists.
Shoppers would pick a pin and return with the gifts, unwrapped, with the tag attached. As a bonus, they got a holiday pin to wear.
A decade later, the trees are now in eight ShopRite stores in Atlantic and Cape May counties, she said. The program last year collected 5,000 gifts for about 1,500 kids, and Riess, of Galloway Township, expects that number to increase this year. Ten years ago she partnered with just one social service agency, Family Service of Egg Harbor Township. This year she will partner with six, two more than last year.
Riess still provides a holiday pin with each tag. But to do it, she requires help from a small army of volunteers, including her daughters, who are now adults. This year's pin is a little gingerbread man made of felt and glitter, she said.
Riess is one of many people in southern New Jersey who give their time to make the holidays better for kids whose families are struggling financially. Volunteers who arrange gift programs spend much of October and November collecting information about individuals in need and preparing and distributing tags to donors.
The effort requires organizational skills to match so many kids with shoppers. It also requires creativity to figure out what to do when some gifts never materialize, because people lose the tags or simply forget to follow through after taking them.
Riess said only about 100 of 1,500 tags were left on her trees last year, and in a small percentage of cases gifts never appeared. But she said many shoppers buy more than the suggested amount, so all of the children get gifts.
"The people that buy for these children are incredible. They'll buy a bag of toys, a coat, outfit and toys for one child," she said. "Some people also just drop off things to me. Some people want to give money. If they do that, I go buy for the ones that don't get taken, which is always the older kids."
Susan Biggs, 38, of North Wildwood, runs a gift program for needy children and senior citizens through the Wildwood Jaycees, a civic group of business people younger than age 40. She makes up tags with ages and genders, and suggested gift items.
"One of the organizations, all it can give us is age and gender. Another one gives us sizes, and suggestions, like 'Four-year old girl loves princesses,'" she said. "That's what we put on the tag."
The Jaycees don't set up a gift tree. The group instead relies on distributing the tags to other community groups and businesses willing to help out, Biggs said. Last year it collected about 300 gifts, and hopes to do more this year.
The group collects toys and gifts for the Coalition Against Rape and Abuse, the Cape May County Department of Aging, Cape May County Social Services, and the state Division of Youth and Family Services.
Senior citizens can be forgotten during the holidays, she said.
"A lot of people are shut in, or don't have people who care about them living around here," she said. The Meals on Wheels program can't give a list of individuals, she said, but instead will give her a list of what many of the seniors need, such as slippers, robes, and puzzle books.
"These are simple things to brighten up somebody's day," Biggs said. "We do need to look out for each other, and make people feel cared for and remembered."
Biggs said the Jaycees took over the program last year from the United Way of Cape May County, which had run it for many years. The Cape May United Way said it could no longer organize the program, after budget cuts forced the agency to lay off its executive director. The Jaycees didn't find out the program was going to be dropped until just before Thanksgiving. But members hurriedly stepped in and enlisted the help of other groups, Biggs said.
"Knowing how many items were collected and how many people were touched by that, it was unacceptable (to lose the gift program)," Biggs said. Some of the groups that have helped are the Greater Wildwood Optimists, Wildwood Rotary, Angelsea Irish Society, Crest Savings Bank in Wildwood, the J Byrne Agency in Cape May Court House, Sand Jamm Surf Shop in Wildwood and Coastal Broadcasting in Wildwood, she said.
At South Seaville Methodist Church in Dennis Township, congregation members are still dealing with the aftereffects of a devastating fire earlier this year, and temporarily meeting at the Grange building in town. But that hasn't stopped them from running their Angel Tree program.
Pastor Thomas Perry said a tree is up from Thanksgiving to Christmas, with ornaments containing a child's age, size, and interests. Members buy gifts for the kids, which will be delivered anonymously, he said. So far, five families with a total of nine local children are signed up to be on the tree, and he expects more to be added.
"I know them, even if don't come to my church," Perry said of local children whose families are struggling. "I know which ones (need the help)."
There are also ornaments on the tree describing gifts for Coast Guard sailors stationed off Afghanistan. The congregation sent their Christmas gifts two months ago, he said, to get there in time. So the tree contains suggestions for Easter gifts.
"To get to them by Easter, we have to send them out by the end of January," he said.
The trees at ShopRite are a volunteer project by Riess, who has worked there for more than 30 years, and is now the computer generated ordering coordinator. Many of the others who help her are also ShopRite workers turned holiday volunteers, she said.
This season she is matching gift donors with kids through the Coalition for Rape and Abuse in Cape May Court House, Family Services in Egg Harbor Township, the Center for Family Services in Cape May, Covenant House in Atlantic City, the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, and the Atlantic County Women's Center shelter.
Over the years the supermarket chain has stepped in to support her efforts. Last year it began reimbursing her for the cost of the materials for making pins, which is about $500, she said. It also helps her safely store and transport the gifts she collects.
She loves to see her pins being worn by people, sometimes years after they were made.
"I'll be at the doctor's office, bank or anywhere, and see someone with one of my pins on," Riess said.
But what she really appreciates is knowing she's making a difference to families.
"Last year someone told me they were at the (Atlantic City) Rescue Mission, and if not for my program, their kids would have gotten nothing," she said. "I tell them to keep the circle going. When you can buy for someone else, do it."
Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:
Other ways to help
Arc of Atlantic County, 6550 Delilah Road, Suite 101, Egg Harbor Township, Holiday Partners program matches donors with Arc families. Contact director of social services Nicole Terzakis at 609-485-0800 ext. 201 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Atlantic County Library System is collecting donations of new books for children of all ages through Dec. 11 during regular library hours at branches in Brigantine, Egg Harbor City, Egg Harbor Township, Galloway Township, Hammonton, Longport, Mays Landing, Pleasantville, Somers Point, Ventnor and at the Buena Community Reading Center in Buena High School.
Court Appointed Special Advocates of Atlantic and Cape May Counties (CASA), 321 Shore Road, Somers Point, 609-601-7800, collects new, unwrapped toys to be given to children in the foster care system. Gifts are needed for newborns through late teens.
United Way of Atlantic County, 4 Jimmie Leeds Road, Suite 10, Galloway Township. Call volunteer center at 609-404-4483 ext.20 for information on how to help.
Cape May County
Coalition Against Rape and Abuse,
800 Route 9, Cape May Court House, 609-522-6489, collects new, unwrapped gifts for newborns through late teens.
United Way of Cape May County, 230 East Maple Avenue, Wildwood, 609-729-2002, call volunteer center for information on how to help.
Wildwood Jaycees gift drive in Cape May County, call 609-729-5501 to help.
United Way of Greater Cumberland County, 856-205-1800. Call volunteer center for information on how to help.
Family Promise, 338 South Main St., Barnegat, 609-994-3317, holiday gift drive for homeless families.
United Way of Ocean County, 650 Washington Street, Suite 2, Toms River, 732-240-0311, runs a holiday food and coat drive.