Oak Harbor Soroptimists’ Tree of Hope seeks gifts for children
By REBECCA OLSON
Whidbey News Times Staff reporter
December 4, 2011 · Updated 6:08 AM
Some memories of childhood Christmases always remain close to the heart: receiving the action figure or stuffed animal at the top of your Christmas list, playing with brand new toys beside a Christmas tree and sitting on Santa’s lap. For some children on Whidbey Island, these memories aren’t possible.
Soroptimist International of Oak Harbor works to change that with Tree of Hope, their main service project, which benefits Whidbey Island children who need the tree’s hope the most. Tree of Hope asks community members and businesses to purchase toys and clothing to brighten the Christmases of local children in need.
“We’re trying to make it so every kid on Whidbey Island will have some kind of great Christmas memories,” said co-chair and Soroptimist member Cheri English.
Approximately 300 of the names remain unclaimed, said co-chair and Soroptimist member Rose Freitas.
With nearly 800 children already signed up to receive gifts, Tree of Hope needs people or organizations that say, “I want to do something nice for these kids,” and will take one or more names, English said. The program could serve up to 1,000 children this year, since the number of children grows every year, she said.
“A lot of people are taking less kids than usual this year,” English said, adding that it’s probably due to the economy.
Volunteers can pick up names from Soroptimist members or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Volunteers will be provided with the clothing size of the child and a wish list and they should buy new gifts, wrap them, label them with the child’s name and identification number and deliver them to the Church of Christ in Oak Harbor on Monday, Dec. 12 or Tuesday, Dec. 13.
“It’s individual gifts that were given just for Tommy or Sally and wrapped just for them,” English said.
The Department of Social and Health Services supplies Soroptimists with the names of families getting assistance but Soroptimists will also look into other struggling families without DSHS assistance. One year, Tree of Hope volunteers purchased a tree and gifts for a family that lost everything in a fire, Freitas said. Even the mother received a present.
Before Dec. 17, children in need who aren’t being provided for by another organization or church can be put on a waiting list and nine times out of 10, Tree of Hope can provide for them, Freitas said.
“Christmas is my favorite holiday and I like to make sure that the kids have at least one present to open,” Freitas said.
“This is a huge community project. Every year I am actually more surprised by how generous they (community members) are and how they step up to help these kids,” English said.
“To me, each year it’s just so amazing how this community comes together. It’s just really heart-warming and brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. It’s just awesome,” Freitas said.
When children pick up their gifts, their smiles shine brighter than Christmas lights. They are excited and jumping up and down, English said.
“It gives you the warm fuzzies. You get to see these little kids come in and they’re very, very thankful,” English said. “Especially in this economy, there are more people with nothing so they’re grateful to get something.”
“There’s not a dry eye. It’s not a Tree of Hope until the ladies are crying,” English said.
An especially striking moment for her was when a 3- or 4-year-old boy received a gift wrapped in a Christmas lights box.
“He was jumping up and down saying, ‘I love Christmas lights!’” English said, laughing. When he opened the box and saw that his real gift was Legos, “he was just as enthusiastic about it.”
“I can see his face today, years later, and how he was hugging his gifts and giving hugs to the Soroptimist ladies,” English said.
“The kids, they’re just so happy when they come in and the parents are so grateful. Just the looks on their faces -- it’s priceless,” Freitas said.
Children can sit on Santa’s lap and make ornaments when they come to pick up their gifts, giving them a more memorable Christmas experience.
The event is held Saturday, Dec. 17 at the Church of Christ, a step up from past locations because the church allows Soroptimist members to take over for a week to turn the church into a regular Santa’s workshop. Rows and rows of gifts will fill the rooms of the church so the 350 families can celebrate Christmas, Freitas said.
Local Toys for Tots drives bring the donations to Tree of Hope and volunteers shop from those toys for children the community didn’t sponsor.
Both Starbucks stores in Oak Harbor are also holding toy drives for Tree of Hope, English said.
Tree of Hope often struggles in December to find volunteers to take the final names so Freitas said she hopes people will volunteer early.
“It is really a service, giving back to the kids. We believe if we’re helping the children, maybe they’ll grow to be better parents,” English said. This in turn will improve the lives of women and girls, which is the goal of Soroptimist, English said.
Volunteers are also welcome to help wrap and organize during the week prior to Dec. 17. To volunteer, stop by the Church of Christ and sign in.
For information visit www.sioakharbor.org.
Contact Whidbey News Times Staff reporter Rebecca Olson at email@example.com or 360-675-6611 ext. 5052.