Soroptimist International of Oak Harbor brings a hopeful Christmas to 800 kids with annual Tree of Hope

Volunteer Vance Freitas selects gifts for children in need from among the hundreds of toys, games and more donated by individuals and businesses in the community to Soroptimist’s Tree of Hope. Above, the Church of Christ was filled with gifts, often stacked feet high, waiting for their new owners last week.   - Rebecca Olson / Whidbey News-Times
Volunteer Vance Freitas selects gifts for children in need from among the hundreds of toys, games and more donated by individuals and businesses in the community to Soroptimist’s Tree of Hope. Above, the Church of Christ was filled with gifts, often stacked feet high, waiting for their new owners last week.
— image credit: Rebecca Olson / Whidbey News-Times

Santa has a bunch of extra helpers this year as Soroptimist International of Oak Harbor members and volunteers brighten Christmas for 800 kids.

This is the Soroptimists’ 25th year helping Oak Harbor families have a special Christmas through Tree of Hope. On Saturday, about 30 families showed up every 15 minutes to enjoy a Christmas experience, complete with a visit with Santa, arts and crafts and cookies.

Over the past 25 years, Tree of Hope has served more than 15,000 children, English said, adding that this is the largest of such projects on Whidbey Island.Last week, the Church of Christ in Oak Harbor was a veritable Santa’s workshop as volunteers “shopped” for presents from among hundreds of donated toys, games, bikes and more filling various rooms of the church, then wrapped the gifts. The main hall of the church was a wonderland of wrapped gifts stacked four feet high in some places.

Among the hustle and bustle was Cheri English, Soroptimist member and co-chair of Tree of Hope with Rose Freitas. If the church was Santa’s workshop, then English was Santa Claus, directing volunteers and overseeing the huge project. Just like jolly old Saint Nick, she carried a thick list of names of all the good boys and girls receiving presents from Tree of Hope. She checked the list twice — and more — to make sure all of the kids would have gifts waiting for them. The Department of Social and Health Services provides the names.

“It’s what we used to do in one day out of the back of an 18-wheeler,” English said, gesturing at the church packed with gifts. Tree of Hope has been using Church of Christ for the past six years, but before that, they had no locked space to keep all of the gifts overnight. “So when these guys offered us their church, their entire church … we can use this all week long,” English said, expressing her gratitude and pointing out that Pastor Matt Oliver was among the volunteers preparing the gifts.

Having use of all the rooms of the church has allowed Tree of Hope to grow. Often, it serves up to 1,000 kids, English said.

“If they hadn’t let us use this church for the past six years, this program wouldn’t be as successful,” English said.

Santa’s workshop

Every room of the Church of Christ was like its own toy store. A boys room was packed with toy cars and fishing poles, a new addition this year. A giant remote controlled car waited for a happy new owner.

“We got lots of really cool stuff this year,” English said.

The game room offered many types of games, from Sorry to Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots. Nearby was a fleet of bikes, including a Disney princess bike and a Hot Wheels bike.

“We got some guitars, which is fabulous,” English said.A girls room sparkled with dolls and also special gifts for the older girls, including makeup bags and kits, shower gels and perfume.

This year, a focus of Tree of Hope was on finding gifts for teens because “everybody wants to shop for little kids,” English said. Deodorant, cologne and soaps were a major component. Other teen gifts included watches and blankets.

“If they’re struggling already, they’re not going to be able to afford these things,” English said. “Toys for Tots is really doing great with bringing stuff in for teens.”All of this is thanks to the many donors, including individuals and businesses. The community comes together to make children’s Christmases special. Every year, Whidbey General Hospital takes more than 90 names. The city of Oak Harbor took more than 50 names this year and the Oak Harbor School District took names too, among other organizations and businesses. Skagit Valley College donated science kits and many individuals brought items.

“Ours is more about bringing the community in and having the community shop for this little kid right here,” English said, pointing out a 9-year-old boy on her list. “A lot of these people love this time of year because they get to go shopping.”

Oak Harbor High School Key Club members helped wrap gifts in the evenings. Bayside Tattoo collected toys and Payless Shoes, Hallmark, Paint Your World, the Oak Harbor Senior Center and more donated toys or gift certificate. Home Depot brought Santa’s chair Saturday and donated the materials for the arts and crafts room. The John Vanderzicht Memorial Pool donated pool passes. The Oak Harbor Police Department offered security, which was especially necessary as the gifts piled up in the church, English said.

“We just get donations from so many people and it helped to make it work,” English said, adding that the Church of Christ was the donor that made it all happen.

Toys for Tots

Michael McClung, who organizes the Whidbey Marine Corps League’s Toys for Tots toy drive each year along with his wife, Re, made yet another stop at Church of Christ last week to drop off another load of toys for Tree of Hope.

“We believe this is very important for every child to get a quality toy,” McClung said as volunteers unloaded bikes, fishing poles and boxes of toys from the truck.

McClung’s daughter, Maj. Megan McClung, was killed in Iraq in 2006. “She was very focused on her troops,” McClung said. Because she was killed in December, an important time to the family, McClung said he does Toys for Tots to make sure no child is left behind at Christmas-time.

“Marines never leave anyone behind,” McClung said.Toys for Tots donations support five Whidbey agencies: Tree of Hope, Holiday House on North and South Whidbey, Department of Social and Health Services and Navy-Marine Corps Relief.

“Everything donated on the island stays on the island,” McClung said. Toys for Tots volunteers have been hard at work since September but donations are down this year.

“But we’ve been very pleased with the quality of toys donated. The problem we run into is we have more children than last year,” McClung said.

Toys for Tots accepts donations year-round and cash donations are especially appreciated. To donate, call McClung at 360-320-3013.

“We (McClung and his wife) believe in toys that are educational and that keep you active. Megan believed in mind, body, spirit,” McClung said. “We try to get the right toy to the right child at the right time.”


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