As with each year, the shelves were filled through the generosity of local residents. And, as with each year, those shelves were emptied earlier this month by families in need who were invited to partake in a happier, brighter Christmas.
It’s called Fulton County Christmas Cheer, and it allows those of limited means to provide their children with presents they wouldn’t otherwise receive and their households with food and everyday necessities they may be lacking. It’s an annual community effort that Christmas Cheer leader Cecily Rohrs said unites the county’s denizens like no other.
On Dec. 6-7, 427 area families that included 734 children passed through the doors of the Junior Fair building at the Fulton County Fairgrounds. As it is for 1 1/2 days each holiday season, the interior was transformed by Christmas Cheer into a shopping center with general store, grocery, and toy areas stocked to provide a Christmas for struggling area families. Rohrs, who has helmed the Cheer team for 33 years, said the teamwork and camaraderie of all involved makes the experience magical.
“The joy for me is seeing all kinds of citizens of Fulton County coming together…When those people come together, my heart sings,” she said. “I don’t know another event to bring us all together like that. It’s the pride in the people.”
A little more than $50,000 is spent on the project each year, half of that on toys. The money is donated within the county by churches, schools, and businesses, and entirely spent within the county. Rohrs said when additional material donations are factored in the total worth reaches closer to $75,000-$80,000.
One hundred and fifty volunteers assisted this year including school students and retirees. Rohrs said over the years the process has become “a fine-oiled machine, because so many people have stepped into their roles. Everyone has taken ownership.”
That includes Fulton County’s FFA chapters. Katie Black, who oversees the Wauseon chapter, said the members kick off their Christmas Cheer toy drive in November each year. They traditionally gather at Ace Hardware in Wauseon to drum up donations, whether it be inside the store or encouraging passing motorists with signs. The members also grill up burgers and sausages at the store to raise funds.
But it doesn’t stop there. The Wauseon FFA members write to area businesses, asking them to host donation change jars and large boxes for toy drop-offs. About 15 businesses agreed this year, and “the quality of toys was very exceptional,” Black said.
After they’re collected, the toys are transported to the Junior Fair building. Area families in need select items in the toy area set up for the children and for the family in the grocery and general store areas. Through a process each year, qualifying families are sent letters in October inviting them to participate. If they agree, they provide information about their families and are sent a second letter they must present at the fair building to gain entrance.
Once there, they’re treated specially, said Michelle Collins, who with Jessica Short has operated the Christmas Cheer store the past 10 years. Each family is paired with a personal shopper, the kids browse for favorite toys, and their parents or guardians can pick up food and sundries. Volunteers carry their bags of items to their cars.
“Our biggest thing is letting them have a choice. They get to come through and pick from each section,” Collins said. “We always say we’re the only store at the end of the day that wants the shelves to be empty.”
Each family also receives a “necessity box” filled with household items they may find hard to get with their limited resources.
FFA members help set up the building for the event, and perform various jobs during, whether helping with shopping or carrying bagged goodies.
Collins said the numbers of families have actually decreased from years when Christmas Cheer served over 1,100 children. She said it’s a good sign that people of need may be bouncing back from hardship.
What has most impressed Rohrs about the project is the way it brings members of the c0mmunity together.
“It’s the relationships that have become so important to most of the people involved in Christmas Cheer,” she said. “It has touched them in some way and they want to continue to help.”
Collins, who calls Rohrs “the face of Christmas Cheer,” said the shopping experience can get emotional for all involved.
“It’s my favorite day, when the families come. It’s honestly hard to put into words,” she said. “It’s really just a fabulous thing, a community thing. The kindness that’s shown, it’s overwhelming. It really makes you feel good about Fulton County, about the community you live in. It’s everybody coming together.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.