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Christmas project brightens spirits for those in need

December 20, 2011

Fittingly, the bags of presents are bright red, like Santa's sack.

Large bags of toys and boxes and bags of food were given out Friday and Saturday, the culmination of the months-long Hood River Christmas Project.

Families arrived from throughout the county to receive the gifts of the community in the annual Christmas Project drive.

Boxes of food and gift were bestowed on more than 500 households, helping more than 2,000 people.

Among those was the Bolanos family of Dee.

"It really means something," said Norma Bolanos, as volunteer Carole Holmson pushed a handcart full of food and gifts to the Bolanos' car.

Norma said the family truly appreciates something extra at Christmas.

"It's that they're willing to help people with low incomes," said Norma, who picked up the food and gifts with her mother, Mikaela. Norma has four sisters and a brother.

"It is something really helping us. I think that's a really nice thing to have during this season," she said.

Project coordinator Bruce Holmson tells of a memorable encounter, starting at registration day last month. (See page A10).

Kym Zanmiller saw her first families on Friday morning, 90 minutes before official opening time for distribution.

"I gave baskets to families at 11:30 today. It was advertised at 1. But they were here, and that was good," said Zanmiller, who is Project board vice president and volunteer coordinator.

"It happens like that every year, and people always come early."

Zanmiller spoke at 3:30 p.m. Friday, a lull time after the typical rush between noon and 2 p.m. After about 4 p.m., things pick up again.

"I feel like it's going smooth-ER now," she said. "It was a little stressful when there was a line out the door." Among her chief helpers is her daughter Jordan, who had a smile and a friendly greeting for everyone who walked up to the reception table in the middle of the room.

Surrounding the table of the bags of gifts and groceries. Jordan and other volunteers made sure they kept a bowl full of candy at the table.

Holmson, a Forest Service retiree, took on coordination seven years ago. He said he started in the 1990s on the food line, with Sharon Smiley.

"She asked me to do the food line. I'd never packed food before; put me on the food line - and she said 'You're going to coordinate it.'"

A few years later, he took on coordination and in 2008 the Project attained tax-exempt status for the first time and formed a five-member board who share responsibilities and coordinate things. With Holmson as president and Zanmiller as vice president are Jeff McCaw, in charge of toys; Linda Hanners, secretary-treasurer; and Mary Finley, food coordinator.

"We tried to put in for some grants the year before, but had no tax ID, and as soon as we got that it just opened up these doors," Holmson said.

This year's donations included $1,500 from Insitu, $2,000 from United Way and $5,000 from the Lions Club.

"The fashion show (in November) is our big one," Holmson said. This year, it raised about $15,000.

"Donations are good this year, very steady," Holmson said.

Notably, Westside Elementary families and staff filled four full fruit bins of toys and food.

Meanwhile, Zanmiller said, the Lions take care of seniors, donating items for bounteous stockings.

"The seniors get a little bit extra," she said. "We provide them with some goodies, and we get good comments back. They really like that." Each bag contains at least nine items including chocolate-covered cherries, cookies, pretzel sticks, scarves and puzzles.

Extra stockings are set aside for special clients "who look like they could use one," Zanmiller said.

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