The volunteers at Spirit of Christmas are currently working in the old Mason Shoe factory on West River Street in Chippewa Falls, putting together Christmas gift packages for families across Chippewa County.

“We’re like elves, but without the pointy ears,” Bonita Aude of Chippewa Falls said.

Aude is one of many volunteers helping to organize donations for the annual Spirit of Christmas gift giving program, which provides presents to low-income families in the area.

And the Spirit  of Christmas is still seeing generous community support, even in hard economic times.

A simple idea

Spirit of Christmas, now in its 23rd year, originated as a project of the Chippewa Falls Clergy Association, though it became a state-incorporated non-profit organization in 1997.

The goal was simple: give Christmas presents to those in Chippewa County who could not afford them.

Families can fill out applications for Spirit of Christmas eligibility, and include a wish list of some items they would like to receive.

These lists are then given as gift tags to area businesses, churches or organizations to hang on a donation tree, where people can see what’s wanted, buy those presents and leave them under the tree for pick up.

Businesses, organizations or individuals can also sponsor a family by picking up a list from Spirit of Christmas volunteers.

The wish lists are mostly anonymous until volunteers begin sorting presents for pick-up. In addition to the River Street location in Chippewa Falls, the group also operates out of the fire station in Stanley and Saint John’s Lutheran Church in Cadott.

The group also handles Chippewa County’s Toys for Tots program and works closely with the Salvation Army and local food pantries.

Last year, the group gave presents to 674 families and 1,548 kids in Chippewa County.

Shopping for others

Aude has been volunteering her time with Spirit of Christmas for six years, first getting involved through her church, Saint Simeon’s Episcopal in the town of Lafayette.

Among some of the activities she participates in are sorting presents for each family and buying additional presents with donated money.

“It’s fun to go shopping for others,” Aude said.

“And it’s less painful when it’s not your money,” joked  the group’s packing and distribution chairwoman, Barb Murphy.

Murphy said the group will use monetary donations to search out good deals on clothing, toys and other requested items. The group likes to give preference to local businesses.

When shopping for toys on children’s wish lists, the group does have some difficulty figuring out exactly what some newer toys are.

“We look at catalogs ... or I ask my grandkids,” Murphy said. “They say ‘oh, Grandma!’”

Though most of the group’s work centers on the weeks before Christmas, Murphy said volunteers bargain hunt year-round in preparation for the following year.

“There are a lot of good deals after Christmas ... in January and February,” she said, which helps the group stretch donation money further.

Community support

Though budgets have been tighter for many families across the community, Spirit of Christmas has seen no shortage of donations.

“People are generous,” Murphy said. “We know it’s hard  times, but people are actually giving more.”

The gift packs average about $40 to $50 per individual, made up of a variety of items, including games, toys and clothing. Both children and parents can fill out wish lists.

Murphy added many people ask for simple items on their wish lists, including clothes, bedding and shoes.

Having smaller, less-expensive items allows the group to add more to each gift bag.

“It makes (kids) feel so good to get something that is on their list,” Aude said.

Murphy also highlighted the support and donations local businesses across the county have given to the group. For example, she said Micon Cinema matches each movie pass the group buys, and Spectrum Industries donated 25 tables to help with sorting and storage.

Mason Companies houses the sorting operations and transports donations free of cost.

Other local businesses, such as RCU and Citizen’s Community Bank, are letting employees take off work hours to help with packing efforts. And McDonell Area Catholic Schools sends a group of students to lend a hand as well.

“We’re no spring chickens,” Murphy said, noting the tiresome lifting and sorting. “We welcome younger volunteers.”

For those who can’t afford to donate, such as the elderly living on fixed income, Murphy said the group supplies them with yarn and fabric for homemade crafts.

Murphy and Aude said the families are very grateful when picking up the presents, with many sending cards and letters thanking volunteers for their efforts.

“It’s very heartwarming,” Aude said.

“We’re beat tired (at the end), but we have fun,” Murphy added.

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