VINTON–The Community Christmas Store was founded by Salem realtor Janie Whitlow and some of her associates almost twenty years ago. With over 600 volunteers, the organization is dedicated to assisting the most vulnerable in our society in a dignified manner during the holiday season, focusing on children, the disabled, and the elderly. Families who qualify get to go through a department-store shopping experience at no cost to them.
“We are a 100% volunteer-run organization that has been serving the Roanoke Valley since 1993,” said Michelle Dyskstra, publicity director for the CCS. “Each year we accept applications from citizens in Roanoke County, Vinton, Craig, and Salem, and invite those who qualify to come shop at our store at no charge.”
Whitlow’s vision was to develop a Christmas giving program that would allow needy families some choices in what they received. She had visited Montgomery County’s Community Christmas Store, liked their idea, and decided to start a similar program here in the Valley.
“I loved the idea of people being able to pick what they wanted and needed, and not have to take what others chose randomly for them,” said Whitlow. “I wanted them to be able to make some decisions. Often people in need don’t have a lot of control over their lives.”
The Community Christmas Store has since evolved into a multi-denominational, non-profit organization. A small core group spends all year planning for the next Christmas, collecting donations of merchandise and money. The rest of the volunteers step in during the holiday season, when the Store opens for two days in mid-December. The store is open for shoppers this year on December 7 and 8.
Volunteers shop for goods, assemble shelving, stock and decorate the store. They review applications from potential shoppers, purchasing specifically for the needs, sizes and ages of eligible applicants.
Over the years the CCS has moved from location to location, setting up wherever they found a generous building owner willing to donate the use of a building or store during November and December. This year the CCS is located in the former Christian Life International building at 4335 West Main Street in Salem in the Glenvar area.
“The biggest challenge is location,” said Whitlow. “The church is a wonderful location; we are lucky to be able to use it again this year. Large commercial locations are hard to find since owners are trying hard to sell their property. Sometimes it’s November before the CCS knows where it will be located.”
In 2011 the Community Christmas Store served 1,108 people during its two days of operation. There were 507 families made up of 789 children and 319 adults. Their goal this Christmas is to serve 600-700 families with an anticipated budget of at least $60,000.
That budget comes from donations raised throughout the year from churches, civic organizations, businesses, schools, and individuals. Approximately 95% of all funds donated to the CCS go directly to the families served.
During this past year, contributions came from numerous sources including a “Pack the Park” event at a Salem Red Sox games, and a donation of $9,000 from the Shag Club’s silent auction. Artist P. Buckley Moss donates a print each year to be raffled. The Marine Toys for Tots campaign donates items for the children. Churches and businesses set up collection boxes on their premises.
Families are approved according to need and are given a shopping appointment time. When they arrive they are greeted by volunteers who assist them in finding clothing, toys, household items and food for their family.
Each family can select one complete outfit per family member, one toy per family member up to 17 years of age, and one household item per family. In addition, each family receives a box of food supplied by donations. The store distributes additional food courtesy of Feeding America Southwest Virginia.
“Since the program serves just children, the disabled, and qualifying seniors, shopping for their families gives parents the “gifting” experience which is often not available to them,” said Whitlow. “The children don’t know that their gifts are donated. The parents have the fun of shopping for their families as our volunteers go out of their way to make it a joyful experience.”
Locations are set up throughout the served areas to take applications in October and early November. Individuals are required to bring a photo ID with their correct address, proof of income, social security cards, and proof of residence. Families are screened for eligibility based on income and family size.
One disabled Vinton couple who assumed responsibility for raising and eventually adopted five of their grandchildren have been shoppers at the Community Christmas Store several times in past years.
The wife became disabled over ten years ago, and her husband, who had owned his own business, developed debilitating heart problems soon after. Improvements in her health have allowed the wife to begin working again at a part-time position, which she hopes will be full-time in the coming year.
“Without the Christmas store, I don’t know what we would have done,” said the woman. “It’s been such a blessing. I hope one day we are in the position of being on the other side and being the ones helping.”
The couple learned about the CCS in working with Social Services and applied on sign-up days held in Vinton at the Senior Citizen Center.
“The volunteers made us feel very comfortable,” said the woman. “They talked to those who were applying one on one, so we didn’t feel embarrassed. You present proof of your address, paystubs, explain your bills. If you meet the income guidelines, you are asked to provide ages, sizes, and needs of your children. You are given an appointment time for shopping at the store. When you get there, someone helps you shop and pick out clothes, toys, and food. Each family that qualifies gets to choose a household item like a toaster, a blanket, or towels. There are also used clothing items you can choose from in a separate area.”
In fact, the woman has clothing that her grandchildren have outgrown that she plans to take with her to the Christmas store to donate to the used clothing section.
“It’s a great program that benefits the entire community,” said Whitlow. “All the money comes from people in the community and goes back to people in the community. Everything is purchased locally so it again goes back to the community.”
“I can’t think of a story that better exemplifies the spirit of the season,” said Dykstra.
When this year’s event ends, volunteers will begin planning for 2013. They are always in need of more volunteers and donations. More information is available online at www.RoanokeValleyCCS.org or by calling 389-2525. Monetary donations may be mailed to The Community Christmas Store, P.O. Box 616, Salem, Virginia 24153.