Poinsettias dotted the tables of the banquet hall at the Intercontinental Hotel. Partygoers hummed along to the holiday tunes jingling around them as they waited in line for Christmas cookies and other fancy treats. In many ways, this was like any other holiday party happening around the city of Milwaukee in December. The formula was food, decorations, and a gift exchange.
But this wasn’t your grandma’s Christmas party. It brought together two community partners: the Benedict Center, a criminal justice agency, and Johnson Controls Women’s Resource Network. The two organizations partner all through the year, but this event is special.
In December, the two organizations participate in the Holiday Giving Tree, a program of the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee providing gifts since 1985. This year, the Giving Tree received financial sponsorship from National Business Furniture. For the past few years, more than 13,000 gifts have been distributed to children, older adults and people with disabilities served at nonprofits in the Milwaukee area each year. Nearly 200 donor groups collect gifts for people served by more than 100 nonprofits. In the late fall, nonprofits collect gift wishes from their clients which the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee distributes to the donor groups.
Gift Tags Tell a Personal Story
These gift tags are personal. Each tag holds three specific gift wishes. Long time participant and NPC staff member Debbie Knepke remembers some of the tags she’s come across over the years: The 7-year-old who requested a book or the 81-year-old who requested a Michael Jackson CD and pink fuzzy slippers. One client of the Benedict Center requested a brand name gift from a store she never thought she could afford.
Benedict Center Development Coordinator Cindy Nicholson says her clients talk up the Giving Tree program all year long:
“It builds excitement, morale, and helps with attendance at our programming," she says. "Probably the biggest success or empowerment of the Giving Tree program is that the gifts show and tell the women that someone in the community cares about them. This is so powerful. We see how it builds up their self-esteem and confidence, but also shows that they are part of a bigger community. A community where people care about them and give because they want to bring joy to someone else – someone they haven’t even met. Too often our clients have experienced trauma and neglect – often from those in their own family. The Giving Tree reminds the women they have worth.”
Gifts can be so much more than material. Receiving a gift can show someone they deserve good things in this world. Giving can remind others to look beyond their privilege into a community that needs their partnership. Bonnie Andrews, Volunteer Milwaukee Manager at the Nonprofit Center hopes that the Giving Tree will be an introduction to a nonprofit organization and be the spark to continue volunteering.
“People think about gratitude and giving at Thanksgiving and Christmas which is great, but really our community depends on volunteers and donors throughout the year to help one another,” Andrews says. “There are so many ways for someone to volunteer. Direct service is only one way. They can help with administrative duties, committees, events, share their marketing, IT, or planning skills, and more. I encourage people to be open to opportunities as they read the paper, talk with friends, and visit our website to find an opportunity. There are lots of ways to serve others in our community.”
For volunteers at the Johnson Controls Women’s Resource Network, the Giving Tree is just one part of their partnership with the Benedict Center. Throughout the year they provide tutors and food for the quarterly award ceremonies of the Women’s Harm Reduction Program. So when the clients of the Benedict Center get their gifts, they receive from people and an organization that they know and has shown investment in their lives.
At the Benedict’s Center holiday party, each client receiving a gift is called up one by one. “The excitement is contagious,” explains Nicholson. “Some are moved to tears (staff included) and there are lots of squeals of delight and joy.”
“They see that they are a part of a larger diverse, community that does things for other people because they want to. It inspires our clients of what is possible.”
The hope of the holiday season often reminds us that many things are possible. How can we harness the generosity and self worth givers and receivers feel at this time of year and spread it around the other eleven months of the year? Individuals, nonprofits, and businesses are invited to be a part of the 32nd year of the Giving Tree this upcoming December and to volunteer throughout the year.
The success of the Giving Tree is not just measured by the great volume of generosity, over 13,000 gifts, but how those gifts can empower the receivers.