What one mother’s volunteer experience at Holly House might teach us all

Holly House, a children’s holiday gift program serving the Edmonds School District, recently had its annual event at Meadowdale Middle School. The non-profit organization distributed new toys, books, socks, underwear, pajamas, coats, Christmas stockings, stuffed animals and blankets to low income families.

The children and parents served by Holly House weren’t the only ones to benefit from the generosity of the community. One of the many volunteers wrote about her experience. We thought her story captured the holiday spirit and wanted to share it with our readers:

– About a month ago at my mothers’ group, I expressed the sense of sadness and helplessness I feel when thinking of individuals in need. More specifically, now that I am a parent, I have this all-encompassing ache for parents struggling to provide a safe and warm home for their children. And then there are the children hoping for a Christmas or Hanukkah filled with lights, presents, and for their parents to be relaxed and free of worry.

Aimee and her daughter
Aimee and her daughter

The next morning our discussion was followed up with a private message about Holly House and the event on December 14th. The instant flow of excuses began to build in my head – I’m so busy, I should be at work instead, I should be home with my family, I should be Christmas shopping … and that did it. The fact that I could go buy presents without a second thought was a reality check on how I could better spend my time. I signed up immediately before I could change my mind.

Holly House For Kids 2014. I would like to begin by acknowledging that I was ignorant about how many families in our area need our help. After parking several blocks away due to a clog of cars in the parking lot, I assumed that it was from the dozens and dozens of volunteers arriving for their 2 p.m. start.  I was wrong. The handful of 2 p.m. volunteers were far outnumbered by the hundreds of guests in line to collect much needed items for their families.

The volunteer sign-in leader was an 11-year old girl. She would quickly become my greatest inspiration of the day. After helping me get suited up with a name tag, she sent me on my way to get some training from Pam or Monty. Unable to find them in my first sweep, the girl suggested I just get to work.

And so I did. Coffee spill clean up and an overflowing garbage can quickly got me promoted to unpacking stuffed animals. From there, I was able to personally assist a woman on crutches (having to wait a very long time for a much-needed surgery) who was shopping for her four children. At that moment, I thought this person had the hardest time of anyone there that day. And then I met the next person. And the next person.

After an hour or so, I landed what I considered to be the best position on the floor. I became the gatekeeper, the person who called in the guests from the waiting area (which sadly resembled the line at the DMV – long wait and too bright fluorescent lights) and introduced them to the shopping area. While I took tremendous joy in calling the guests in by number, it was agony making every other person wait for their turn.

   Aimee's "greatest inspiration of the day" 11 year old Jessie
Aimee’s “greatest inspiration of the day,” 11-year-old Jessie

This is where the 11-year old girl came in. After a few rounds of calling out numbers, “16, 17, 18!” with an apologetic look to the rest of the crowd, this young woman vacated her sign in post (only after checking to make sure her station was tidied up), and informed me that I needed to improve my delivery.

“They can’t hear you, who taught you to yell?”

I stared at her blankly.

“I’ll call out the numbers,” she announced.

And so she did, along with another excited friend. The guests started smiling as she pranced around by the white board, announcing the numbers with delight. After a few rounds, she took over writing the numbers on the board, telling me to focus on my job on the other side of the wall.

Within the hour guests were jumping up at the sound of their number. Several people yelled “bingo!” which made the whole crowd relax a little and smile. Others did a little dance, shook their yellow shopping slips in the air, or were cheered on by friends and family. When I led these now smiling faces through the door into the shopping area, most lit up like children walking into the famous over the top toy store, FAO Schwartz.

At some point I stopped being nervous. I stopped caring that I had worn a sweater that made me look like a little too fancy, and that I rambled when I taught the guests how to use their yellow sheets, or that I had eaten candy and nothing else for lunch. I was helping people, and it was fun.

Over the course of the evening, hundreds of parents, some carrying babes on their chests or in their bellies, made the pilgrimage through Holly House For Kids. One pregnant woman was scheduled to deliver her baby daughter on Wednesday via cesarean. She treated the afternoon of waiting like a last minute spa day away from her kids at home, entertaining guests and volunteers alike.

The fallout. I sobbed so hard on the drive home that I had to pull over. I kicked myself for leaving before the last guest had walked through, and for not figuring out a way to help them more. For the pregnant woman I wanted to bring diapers to her house and fuzzy slippers for her to wear in recovery at the hospital, maybe some chicken pot pie for her kids to eat while mom recovered. I thought of my own c-section this year and all of the free help I had to care for this tiny single baby while I healed. And I thought about if my family were to fall on hard times, would people be kind and generous enough to help my daughter have warm shoes and a sparkly gift to open on Christmas?

To the 11-year-old girl. Thank you for teaching me that people who are in a serious struggle don’t necessarily want to be met with more seriousness. Part of what Holly House For Kids does is create an event that fulfills needs but also treats the guests like regular people. I had been calling folks in like a robot – my only focus had been to make sure that they heard this bullet point list of information. But the real impact, what made people smile more than finding that perfect toy or book for their child, was breaking down the barrier between those helping and those being helped.

– By Aimee, first time volunteer at Holly House

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