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The gift of giving: Holiday tree helps less fortunate have happy holidays

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By AJ Vicens

Ryan, 15, wants puzzles for Christmas, or a gift card.

Nichole, 11, wants a Kids Bop CD or Dance Dance Revolution, a video game where people dance their way to victory.

Chelsea, 17, wants a Target gift card, and Johnny, 18, wants four tall T-shirts.

These requests were found on cards attached to the Jeffco Giving Tree, which stands tall in the atrium of the Jefferson County courts building. County employees — and sometimes others — pluck the cards off the tree and bring gifts to the commissioners’ offices by Dec. 17. The gifts are meant to try to help children and adults involved with either Stride — a program designed to help families get on the path to self-sufficiency — or the office of Jefferson and Gilpin County Court Appointed Special Advocates, known as CASA.

Marge McDonnell, an executive assistant to the county commissioners, coordinates the Giving Tree.

“Just knowing that some children are getting gifts that probably wouldn’t be getting them otherwise” is what McDonnell enjoys about the project. She said the county has been doing this since Christmas 1993 or 1994, and it has been a popular program.

“Many employees love to do it,” McDonnell said. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of employees that take three, four, five or six tags off the tree. It’s amazing. It’s wonderful. By the time it’s just about over ee it’s just like we have a sea of gifts up here. It’s just really nice.”

Sarah Maxwell, director of operations for Stride, said the organization has been working with Jeffco for at least three years on the Giving Tree project. The gifts go to Stride, and then the organization puts them together for the families in a “Santa’s workshop” of sorts in its basement. She said the group is working with about 300 children this year, at about three gifts each, and could receive up to 1,500 gifts.

“It’s an amazing thing,” Maxwell said. “I think that it’s even more of an amazing thing for the parents, because there’s so much pressure this time of year to get gifts and provide that kind of Christmas spirit that a lot of these parents wouldn’t be able to get near what people donate for their kids. And I think that’s really meaningful for them.” She added that there are two programs — one in Aurora with 100 families, and about 150 families in Jeffco. The families make requests in October, which gives them a sense of control.

“The gifts are what the kids picked out, and what mom picked out for them,” Maxwell said. “Which is something that we really like because it empowers the family, that they have some kind of control over this, they don’t feel like a charity case. I think that’s really important, especially because we focus on self-sufficiency.

CASA had about 75 tags on the tree, according to that group’s executive director, but as of last Friday there were only a handful left.

“These kids are like every other kid,” said Leah Varnell, CASA executive director. She said that every child her group works with is involved with some sort of neglect or abuse, and a simple gift can go a long way. The group prefers new gifts and encourages people to think about the older children, not just the young ones. Varnell said that some gift-givers even think about the children’s caretakers. Gift cards work great, so the children can buy clothes or food.

“I’m overwhelmed by their generosity,” Varnell said of the county employees who year in and year out buy gifts for the Giving Tree. “They’re unbelievably giving.”

Varnell said she’s heard of county employees taking their own children with them to buy the gifts to teach them about those less fortunate and how to be giving in their own lives. She added that the whole thing is very gratifying for a group faced with tough circumstances on a daily basis.

“Our volunteers and staff are faced every day with reading about families and children in horrible situations,” Varnell said. “It can be depressing and emotionally draining. It is so gratifying to be able to connect needs with people who want to help. It’s a real emotional boost.”

Varnell said that CASA is currently looking for additional volunteers, and that if people want to donate new gifts or money, they can call 303-271-6535.

Contact AJ Vicens at: aj@evergreenco.com.