Sunday, November 16, 2014

2014 Thanks for Giving: An Early Countdown to Christmas for Many Kingsport Families

Kingsport's Christmas cheer just got kickstarted with the annual Thanks for Giving event.

Saturday, November 15th, was the one day when love and compassion take action for area families.  Born from the Kingsport Junior League's former 'Bargain Bonanza, the Thanks for Giving event has a wonderful holiday twist.

Every item is free of charge.

"I just got the idea one day ''why don't we just do something different and give the items away?'" says director Tammy Street.  "I had done many volunteer hours with the 'Bargain Bonanza' and it bothered me that there was still a need in the community for families who may be struggling to provide Christmas gifts for their families.  With help and encouragement from friends, we put the first one together 9 years ago, and we had more than 300 people stop by."

"Every year, it just grows and grows."

Although the event is held once a year and the doors open at 8 AM, visitors were lined up at the Kingsport Civic Auditorium at 5:30 before sunrise.  A wonderful selection of gift items and ideas awaited them.

"There's kids clothing, adult clothing, books, music, furniture, even household items," Street says.  "All of our items are donated, either new or gently used.  We go through everything, and it's all put to good use.  A lot of people just need a pair of shoes, but they can't afford them.  Their kids need a nice, warm coat, but they can't afford them.  Mama or Daddy needs a warm, comfortable sweater or a pair of slacks, but the store prices keep them from being able to get them.  We don't forget shoes.. some folks just can't afford new shoes right now, because they're trying to budget around buying other gifts.  We try to help them, because what they don't have to buy here, they can maybe purchase something for somebody else, closer to Christmas."

"They are why we're here," she says.  "They are why we do this."

Visitors are not limited.  Street says, any person in the area who has a need, comes by and the group does whatever it can to meet that need.  "It could be parents, single parents, or grandparents raising their grand-kids on a fixed income.  The need is there.  They can't afford to buy extra coats or extra shoes or themselves, or even toys for the kids for Christmas."

"That's where we try to help."

The Thanks for Giving event could not be accomplished without the help of a dedicated set of volunteers.

"We put the entire program together in the week before the big day," she says, "and I'd dare say we spend about 2,000 volunteer hours gathering items, sorting them, organizing, and also lining the clothing into sizes.
An example of the volunteer giving spirit, happened the day before the event this year.  Some of our volunteers helping us organize, noticed that we were low on kids' winter coats.  They went away and came back with a van-load of brand new coats that they purchased for us to give away.  That says a lot about the love that our volunteers have for the people of the community."

The volunteer list gets bigger every year, too.

"Folks will hear about 'Thanks for Giving' and once they volunteer, many people come back year after year," Street says.  "They tell us that this event is their Christmas.  This is their way of giving back to the community.  It feels good knowing that you can do that, to help a family enjoy a nice holiday season, just makes it worth it.  I can't say enough about how great our volunteers are."

"We just couldn't do it without them."

A stroll through the Thanks for Giving aisles is like department store shopping.. except for one thing.

There's no checkout line.

"We have volunteers that we call 'runners' who will escort each family into the shopping areas," says Street. "They talk to them, find out their needs, their sizes, and what they're looking for.  The runners get to know the families, and that helps match up the right items to the right person.  If they're not sure, the runners offer suggestions that the families appreciate.  Everybody just takes their time, and it becomes a memorable moment at a wonderful time of the year."

The kids are not left out of the festivities.  That's where Jolly Ole St. Nick comes in.

"The kids get to tell Santa how good they've been this year," Street says.  "None of Santa's kids have been naughty, so everybody gets a nice toy.  We've got a big selection, and nobody is disappointed.  To see the joy on the children's faces with a new toy or a new book, sitting on Santa's lap.. it means a lot.  Some of the kids will tell us 'we've never had a Christmas tree' and they 're jumping up and down seeing the ones here.  Some parents tell us trees are a luxury that sometimes they can't afford, but the kids get to experience it here, and that's important."

"We also have a gift shop that only the kids can go into.. no parents allowed," says Street.  "Inside, the kids can shop for their parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, or other relatives.  We gift-wrap the items and everything's ready to go.  The children come out amazed and their faces are just lit up."

Those happy faces extended to their parents, too.

None of the items are wasted.  "We donate to several organizations around the area," says Street. "Everything is put to good use."

And as the doors close, efforts begin for next year's event.  "We start collecting items for next year almost immediately," she says. "One of our volunteers has a storage building, and he graciously lets us keep things there for the next year.  It's a lot of work, but just knowing that people look forward to it, that this one event might make Christmas a little easier, makes it all worth it."

Street says, it's a blessing to be able to bring Christmas to families that need a little cheer.  Being able to share their own blessings, keeps volunteers coming back, year after year.

And judging from the smiles from the parents and the happy faces on the children, the Christmas giving spirit has arrived in Kingsport.

Last stop.... Christmas Day.

"I can't explain it.. it's the best feeling in the world," says Street.  "Nobody ever wants to miss it."