Holiday Giftmart brings communities together, entices volunteer spirit

Neya Thanikachalam, Editorial Editor

When Spanish teacher Mary Warren entered Brady Elementary on Dec. 16 at 6:45 a.m., she was unsurprised to see a line of people stretched out in front of the door, winding its way down the sidewalk.

Brady Elementary is one of the five sites for Giftmart, an organization that started in 2003 to provide Christmas gifts for families in need by partnering with schools, businesses and faith-based organizations to collect toys.

According to Giftmart director Amy Plummer, the principal of Brady Elementary approached the previous director in 2003 and asked her if the organization would be willing to help with providing presents during Christmastime. The organization already had a partnership with the school where they provided tutoring and mentoring services.

“My previous boss really believed that there’s dignity in choice, and also there’s dignity in being a blessing while you’re receiving a blessing,” Plummer said. “Our requirements were [that] we would set up a shop where parents could come in and they could choose toys for their family, pay a nominal fee of two dollars a toy, and then that money would go back to the school.”

Giftmart has two locations in Aurora, one of which is Brady Elementary, two locations in Joliet and one in Naperville. In total, 10 different elementary schools take part in Giftmart, with each school inviting parents to buy presents for their children at the closest of the five sites.

On the morning of Dec. 16, families stood in front of Brady Elementary, waiting for the doors to open at 7:30. Once inside, parents could drop off their children at a crafts room and then go Christmas shopping.

When parents entered the building, they were greeted by Warren, who would check them in. Initially, Warren had been signed up as a lead in one of the crafts rooms, taking care of the children. Due to a lack of Spanish-speaking volunteers, and her fluency in Spanish, she was reassigned to stand outside and work the line.

“[I’d] make announcements, and check in [the families] by putting these little bracelet tags to identify the parents and the child because they’re separated, and the children are taken to the crafts rooms, based on their age,” Warren said.

The first 15 people Warren talked to told her they had been there since 3:00 a.m. Plummer, who was the site leader for Bardwell Elementary, the other location in East Aurora, had heard rumors that people had been waiting there since midnight.

“In East Aurora and Joliet, it’s a more block party kind of feel,” Plummer said. “We tend to get more people waiting outside in line. In [the Bardwell] site, there were around 100 people waiting in line when we opened at 7:00. [In Naperville] the situation’s different.”

According to Plummer, the only families that are invited to the Naperville site are the ones on a Free and Reduced Lunch Price Plan (FRL). Because there aren’t that many families in Naperville that have a need for Giftmart, the families invited are given a time slot. However, the sites in Aurora and Joliet are about 95 percent FRL, so everybody’s invited, making it seem more like a community event.

While checking people in at the Brady Elementary site, Warren was struck by the many parents who patiently waited in line, regardless of the cold. She could see people huddled together, covered in blankets or sitting in chairs. Not all of them had winter coats.

“There was one mom [who] came in and she was shivering, just completely frigid,” Warren said. “We were talking, and I asked ‘Oh, did you forget your coat?’ and she said, ‘No. That’s what happens when you have three children. You make sacrifices.’ It gets you, when you see the need and the sacrifices the parents make for their children.”

From the Central community, Communication Arts teacher Mary Wilkerson has been involved in Giftmart in past years and Spanish teacher Jennie Franta got involved this year. In her classroom, Franta collected toys from her students and at the event, she volunteered at Brady Elementary as a lead in a crafts room.

“The kids [in the crafts rooms] obviously know that their parents are shopping for Christmas gifts for them, so they’re excited,” Franta said. “[But] when a lot of them enter the room, they’re shy […] and just to see the moment when the shyness goes away and they’re fully engaged and just kind of open up is memorable.”

Warren and Franta encouraged their students to volunteer for Giftmart, which would allow them to use their Spanish skills. Junior Meghan Swain decided to volunteer that day.

“I was in the library section, which already had different stations set up,” Swain said. “Most of the time we’d just go around, and make sure the kids were okay, or just play with them.”

At first, Swain was worried that the children wouldn’t be able to understand her Spanish.

“I was afraid that I’d be self-conscious when I talked to them and I wouldn’t be able to talk much to them, but you can have real conversations with them,” Swain said. “I don’t have very developed Spanish skills, but the kids don’t care if you mess up on your Spanish.”

Swain had decided to volunteer for the event because she enjoyed working with kids.

“There was this one little girl who would translate for her younger sister when I would say something, and that was really cute,” Swain said. “I’ll definitely go next year. They’re kids, and you’re going there to play with them. You might go in feeling weird about it, but just go there and plan on having fun.”