As children uncover their holiday treasures, the sounds of gift wrap tearing and tissue paper rustling has already begun in some Oakdale homes. For others, those sounds may not be so apparent. As families continue to struggle to stay in their homes and feed their families, volunteer gift programs are perhaps more valuable to families now than ever before.
Fortunately for over 190 Oakdale children and their families, the Oakdale Lions Club is still going strong and is just as dedicated to making the holidays memorable for many Oakdale families.
On Thursday evening, Dec. 17, each of the children were greeted at their homes by a stranger who would make this a Christmas they would not soon forget.
Oakdale Lion and event organizer Greg Rivera along with key volunteers Don Allen, Shelayne Higgs and 18-year event veteran Bev Abarca were joined by over 200 additional volunteers at the ready to serve the children.
The children were taken to Big Kmart, where they were allowed to select $100 worth of items of need. Winter coats, socks, shoes, underwear, T-shirts and jeans, with the help of the volunteers these children were given an opportunity to see how far they could stretch $100.
Four-year-old Rowan Jorgensen said she wanted “hundreds of clothes” while 3-year-old Ava Rose just wanted to make sure she ended the night with a princess shirt — specifically Cinderella.
Her mother, Jenny Delello said of the special shopping spree, “I think it’s neat that they do this for the community during hard times like this.”
Delello, a single mom raising two children with one on the way continued, saying, “It’s hard when you’re the parent and you can’t do as much for your kids as you would like. Toys are fun but clothes and shoes are a necessity.”
For 7-year-old Emma who was on the prowl for a princess shirt with Belle on it, the best part about the evening was, “I don’t have to be around my brothers!”
She added, “This is a good Christmas. I want to find shoes with no laces on them.”
Sally Cole, a return chaperone for the event, said, “It’s so great to give back to the community. I just love it because it’s so much fun. This year I got the social butterfly of the bunch. She’s darling and such a joy to shop with.”
Following their individual shopping extravaganza they were each taken to the Oakdale Sportsmans Club for a dinner of pizza and a visit with Santa Claus. And much to the surprise and delight of many of these children they were each sent home with an extra little something from Old Saint Nick.
In keeping with the spirit of giving, much of the pizza for the party was provided at no cost. Sixty pizzas were delivered from Mountain Mike’s; 45 were donated and 15 were purchased at a discount.
According to Rivera, the Shopping Spree program was originally begun by the Oakdale Jaycees, also known as the Oakdale Junior Chamber of Commerce. When that group disbanded, the program was adopted by the Oakdale Lions Club.
“My involvement began with receiving a letter and donating a little bit,” Rivera, a past member of the Jaycees stated. “When the group disbanded, I joined the Lions Club and brought it to their attention.”
Through his years of involvement Rivera stated he has learned to trust and rely on a number of people to help see the event through.
This year marked the 18th year that Bev Abarca lent her time to the worthwhile event.
According to Abarca she began her journey with the shopping spree when it was still run by the Jaycees and followed it to the Lions Club.
“I started organizing for the Lions Club in the way of contacting families and making sure no one was left out,” she said, “and Greg worked with donations.”
Rivera stated that in its early years the event hosted an average of 60 to 70 children. The amount of children the group is able to help each year is determined only by one simple denominator — financial donations. At the time Rivera spoke with The Leader the number he anticipated was 170 children.
“That can still go up,” he said. “Money is still coming in.”
And so it did. In one additional week the group collected enough money to increase the number of children to 192.
“People do want to be involved,” he said, “because it’s such a good heartfelt thing to do.
“All the money donated, goes to this program.”
Rivera also shared that it’s the pool of volunteers that make the program all that it is each year.
“There’s no way I could do this by myself,” he said.
Abarca spent 11 of her 18 years as a volunteer coordinating the volunteers, chaperones and children.
“The fulfillment is just seeing the faces of these children,” she said of her experience. “Just seeing them being able to pick what they want. That is a big plus.”
Shelayne Higgs, the event’s current family/chaperone coordinator, could not agree more.
“A lot of people bring their own kids to share their experience,” Higgs stated. “I mean these kids are excited about getting underwear or about getting a coat. It’s really not about getting a toy for these kids.”
The volunteer shared her 14 year-old son Chase joined her this year.
“It’s important for our children to see how good we have it,” she said.
“The most rewarding part is the Oakdale community,” Higgs added. “And getting to see how everyone comes together in this. I love seeing how people are so giving.”
On the topic of giving, the volunteer recounted instances from last year of individuals digging into their own wallets to help pay the difference if a child’s choices exceeded the $100 limit.
“What I really think is cool and I kind of encourage it,” Rivera said, “is when people (volunteers) ask can I take my kids.
“Another cool thing,” he added, “is a lot of people say you know we aren’t going to do anything for ourselves this year, we just want to give.”
And give they do. Rivera also sang the praises of Higgs as one of the newest key volunteers to join the group, stating, “Shelayne has just taken it to a new level.”
Part of that level would be credited in part to a private fundraiser Higgs, along with a group of girlfriends know as the “Rummy Girls” organized earlier this year. With the help of Mike Bacigalupi and the H-B, the group was able to raise $4500 to donate to the Lions Shopping Spree.
“Our goal was to raise $3000,” Higgs said of the financial goal. “So it was great.”
Higgs added that much of this greatness could not happen without all of the volunteers who help with everything from making the chaperone packets, to contacting families and seeing the event through from beginning to end.
“This is truly a team effort,” she said. “It is not a one person deal. Not one person could do this by themselves.”
When discussing the personal reward she gains from the experience, Higgs stated, “The overall picture of the community coming together and the happiness of the children as they come through the line.
“You truly get to see the kids and the looks on their faces. I think that’s why our chaperones like it so much. They get to be with the children.”
Persons interested in donating for next year may do so by contacting Greg Rivera at R&T Power Equipment, 847-3252, or may send donations to Oakdale Lions Club Foundation, CCST, P.O. Box 550, Oakdale, CA 95361-0550.