A Modern-Day Santa: The Salvation Army's Angel Tree
Christmas is a special day in the lives of millions of people each year. Amid the stress and strain of daily living, we stop for at least one day to share faith, hope and love with each other. It is a time for families to bond and renew their sense of commitment. For older adults, it is a time to reflect. For younger children, it is a time to experience the total joy of gift-giving, Santa Claus and what Christmas is all about. Many of us also take the time to reflect on the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a unique time that is full of anticipation and expectation. If the weather cooperates, a glimmer of snow may decorate the air.
For the majority of us, when you say the word Christmas, you see a smile. However, if you are in need or despair, you may dread Christmas. This is especially true of Christmas morning because you may have nothing under your tree to share with your children. Fortunately, The Salvation Army recognized this sad situation and did something about it.
Along with the familiar red kettles, the Angel Tree program has become one of The Salvation Army’s highest-profile Christmas efforts. The Salvation Army's Majors Charles and Shirley White created the Angel Tree Christmas program in 1979. The Salvation Army officers worked with a Lynchburg, Va., shopping mall to provide clothing and toys for needy children at Christmastime. Since then, the tradition has spread across the country and is now the cornerstone of The Salvation Army’s Christmas assistance efforts. In my position at The Salvation Army’s divisional headquarters in Indianapolis, I was able to witness this miraculous program firsthand when it came to central Indiana for the first time this fall.
There are children in every community who live in struggling households where there is a lack of money, unemployed or underemployed parents, poor or limited housing and daily food struggles, according to The Salvation Army. Some families who had little to start now have less, and parents are working harder every day to make it to tomorrow. As these moms and dads struggle to keep afloat, they question how they can give even one present to their child on Christmas morning. The Salvation Army believes every child deserves to experience the joy of opening a gift on Christmas morning. Because of supporters of this program, almost one million American children will find gifts under their trees this year, toys and clothing lovingly wrapped and labeled by grateful parents.
The Angel Tree program is simple in concept and involves two stages. During the first stage in October and November, parents in need of help providing for their children go to various The Salvation Army facilities, which are called corps. The corps are community centers where parents will find a chapel for prayer, a social service office and a community center with daily activities for all ages. Many corps also have a gymnasium where recreational sports and other athletic activities are held.
Families whose incomes fall below national poverty guidelines qualify for Angel Tree assistance. Once validated, parents list the names of each child, “Angel,” in the family. Information also is gathered on the child’s gender, age and special Christmas wants and needs. In many cases these wants and needs include coats, shirts, socks, toothbrushes and toys. One Angel in Indianapolis was even in need of a bed. It is all about meeting children’s needs. In each case children receive new items. In its first year in central Indiana, the Angel Tree program helped to provide Christmas for 4,042 children from 1,700 families who signed up for the program.
Once all the Angels are signed up, it is time for stage two. This involves identifying individuals, organizations, associations, corporations and foundations willing to adopt or sponsor Angels. Sponsoring an Angel involves purchasing the items on an Angel’s wish list. Most donors spend between $50 and $100 per Angel. The Salvation Army markets the adoption process through "Angel trees," tall Christmas trees covered in paper Angel tags, each carefully labeled with a child’s name, age, clothing and shoe sizes, and wants and needs. The trees are set up in busy places like local malls, businesses and churches. Other donors may choose to go online to sponsor Angels. In one case in Indianapolis, a company held an employee fair and had two trees with 150 Angels on these trees. It was a large company and every Angel was taken off of the tree and sponsored. A typical marketing campaign seeking adoptive donors spans mid-November to mid-December. In Indianapolis, Angel Tree bags filled with gifts were to be returned to The Salvation Army by Dec. 15, in advance of the major distribution day event on Dec. 17.
In the days leading up to distribution day, many volunteers and staff prepared the Indiana State Fairgrounds for the arrival of more than 1,700 parents, sorting and packing more than 4,000 Christmas bags filled with gifts. Each numbered gift bag included the child’s name and gift information, and was placed in numbered sequence with all the other bags. On distribution day, volunteers and staff played a variety of roles to move parents into the facility and to give them their children’s gifts. In one case, a single mother had seven children. There was no margin of error as each bag was checked to see that each child received a full bag and appropriate gifts.
My job during this process took many forms. Early in the process I solicited a $5,000 check from a company president, plus the adoption of 20 Angels by employees and 15 volunteers to help at the fairgrounds. I also drove a truck around town to pick up Angel Tree bags and help set up the fairgrounds for distribution. The night before Angel Tree distribution, I audited Angel Tree bags with staff and officers until midnight. Finally, I was a runner all day during distribution day, taking bags from the back of the facility to waiting parents in the front. More than one time that day, I had tears in my eyes as I heard families thank The Salvation Army volunteers and staff for sponsoring this program. Did I also tell you we carried all these Angel gift bags to the parents’ cars?
In summary, many charities do a wonderful job at Christmastime focusing on helping families in need to cope with the stress and extra costs that can diminish the joy of Christmas. I am blessed to work for an organization that just made more than 4,000 children smile on Christmas because of donors who have big hearts. I cried with one donor as she helped me load the truck with filled Angel Tree bags. She said she did not have many Christmas mornings as a child and thanked us for offering this program. I thanked her because the program would not exist without her support. I wonder how many children will be forgotten on Christmas morning. I wish I could help every suffering child every day of the year.
The true spirit of Christmas is giving and seeing others smile. Thank you to the generous donors and The Salvation Army Angel Tree program for lending Santa Claus a hand this year!
Duke has extensive experience as a nonprofit practitioner, author, lecturer and consultant. He has been a contributing author to NonProfit PRO for the last 11 years. He has been a long-standing member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals where he was previously named the AFP Indiana Chapter Fundraising Executive of the Year and has held the CFRE designation for many years.
He received his doctorate degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis in education administration, master's degree from Marshall University with an emphasis in public administration and a bachelor's degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis in marketing/management. He has also completed post graduate work at the University of Louisville.
He is currently executive director of development for The Salvation Army Indiana Division in Indianapolis, Indiana. Contact Duke at email@example.com or 317-224-1029.