By Kara Witherow, Editor
Each of Lugenia Brown’s five children believes in Santa Claus.
Like every other child, they hoped that Santa would bring them gifts to open on Christmas morning. Kyree, 7, wanted a bike and toy cars while his brother, Evan, also 7, asked for a bike and a laptop. Kaylan, 12, enjoys dolls, and Nija, 14, wants to start wearing makeup. Christian, 3, likes toys.
Thanks to Open Door Community House’s Sharing Christmas ministry, this year each of Brown’s children woke up to find a pile of presents under their tree.
“Pretty much everything they asked for, I now have,” Brown said before Christmas. “The joy of Christmas is being able to see those smiles and hear them say, ‘Mama, look what Santa Claus brought me!’ It’s wonderful, especially right now. Times are hard and I’m kinda struggling a little bit so this makes it a lot easier.”
Part of Open Door Community House’s ministry to children and youth, the Sharing Christmas program exists to serve families who are very low income and cannot afford items for their children at Christmastime. The program provides parents the opportunity to choose toys, clothing, school supplies and other gifts for their children, just as they would in a store.
Following federal government poverty guidelines, Open Door requires income and age verification when parents sign up for the program. They’re then assigned a time to return the week before Christmas to “shop” and select gifts in a store-like atmosphere. There are even volunteers available on site to wrap the gifts.
This year, 637 children were served by the ministry.
“This program really helps these parents provide Christmas for their children,” said Kim Jenkins, executive director of Open Door Community House, Inc.
One of just two Columbus-area Christmas gift ministries that support teenagers, Sharing Christmas provides gifts for children up to age 17.
“We had seen a need for teenagers to be served,” said Marlon Sharpe, Open Door’s director of community ministries. “So many families have teenagers as part of their family makeup, and if parents don’t have the money to serve the younger children they definitely don’t have the money to serve the older children. We think there’s a great need for that and we’re glad to be able to provide it.”
Open Door is able to serve the community through the generous support of churches, individuals, families, charitable organizations and corporations.
Throughout the year, they collect items to be given away during Sharing Christmas, and closer to the event they publish a “wish list” of commonly asked-for items. Items topping the wish list include clothes, hats, scarves, toys, bikes, toy cars and trucks, costume jewelry, roller skates, art supplies, dolls, sporting equipment, puzzles, books, music players, electronics and musical instruments.
A week or two before Christmas, dozens of volunteers file into Open Door to help sort and inventory the thousands of donated toys and items of clothing and set up the store display.
Columbus resident and Auburn University sophomore Elizabeth Lingo is one of 11 Columbus debutantes who volunteered to help.
The debutante group chose Open Door as their charity, giving their time and talents to the ministry throughout the year. Last summer they volunteered at Open Door’s summer camp, and during their recent winter break they came back to help with Sharing Christmas.
“It was really fun to see how much Columbus has given to this organization,” Lingo said. “It made us all really happy. I’ve always loved to give back to the community, and this is an important part of our service to be able to actually see who we’re helping. It’s a great way to give back and see how we’re helping the community in some way.”
And how Columbus has given. With the amount of donations they received, this year Open Door was able to allow parents to choose three large toys, a few small toys, books, school supplies and three sets of clothing per child. Each child was also given a Bible, a stuffed animal and stocking stuffers, and every family took home a board game.
“We do our best to give every child a great Christmas,” Sharpe said.
The Sharing Christmas program ministers not just to the families it serves, but also to the greater Columbus community.
“This gives the opportunity for our community to be a part of the giving and gives them a way to minister,” Jenkins said.
People from all over the area call to see how they can help, she said. One company even hosts a play for their employees, charging a new toy as admission. The toys are then donated to Open Door’s Sharing Christmas ministry.
“This gives our families a sense of dignity that they can come and shop for themselves,” Jenkins said. “This really is one of those ministries where you see faith in action. You see the joy and hope, and you see people giving because it’s part of who we are as Christians to give.
“They really are giving hope, and that’s much bigger than the bike or board game that the kids may get. Those things are important, but hope creates a whole new element to how their faith is impacted.”
Faith in action. Giving hope. Love. That’s what Christmas is all about.