On December 5, about 40–50 volunteers are at the Samaritan Center early, well prepared and ready to go. Everyone knows his or her job. At 8 a.m. they say a prayer then begin their work.
Mary Jo Cable told the group there are two primary reasons to give. The first is that what we have is not ours but God’s. The second is that it is a blessing to be a blessing to others.
“We want to be a conduit of blessings, not a reservoir,” she said.
The clients sign up in advance and must meet income eligibility criteria. Most are already taking part in regular food distributions at the Samaritan Center.
For the first 15 minutes, 15 clients are scheduled to come through. Within half an hour they are up to 30 clients coming through every 15 minutes. This year 960 families, including more than 500 children, were provided for through the Christmas Cheer ministry.
A client’s family size determines the amount of food the person receives. When someone comes through the door they are given a color-coded clothes pin that corresponds to his or her family size number. One volunteer calls out the number to the other volunteers on the food line so they can have the appropriate amount of food bagged and ready to hand the person as they walk by. The operation runs with an efficiency similar to an Amazon warehouse.
The distribution day is months in the making. Cable starts shopping for food with a long shelf life in the summer, in order to find the best deals. Much of it comes from Harvesters Community Food Network in Kansas City, which sells food to food pantries at large discounts. Christmas Cheer is the number one food distribution point from Harvesters, and the Samaritan Center is the third largest “client choice” food distributor in the state.
Food is also gathered in locally by various community groups, many of which take on a specific item. The Davis R-12 school collected 1,200 cans of tomatoes. A competition between classes in other schools resulted in the donation of 10,425 packs of ramen noodles. Clinton Christian Academy collected boxes of pudding. The United Methodist Church in Ulrich provided 1,200 boxes of saltine crackers. The Christian Church in Clinton pitched in cake mixes.
The week prior to the distribution, Cable works with a few volunteers to prepare, so the food is sacked, boxed and ready to go. In addition to the food, they also provide toiletries and a blanket to each of the customers. A flier, God in a Manager, is given to everyone who comes through.
Rev. Brad Reed was on the line handing out food throughout the morning.
“Christmas Cheer is amazing. We had a nonstop flow of people yesterday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.” he said. “I’ll confess this is my one day a year out here, but we have a lot of members from our church who are here every week.”
It’s not just churches who are staffing the distribution. Other volunteers came from places like Kansas City Power and Light, the local lumber yard, the local fertilizer plant and Clinton fire
“I’ll call a place and tell them we need help, and they’ll send a crew,” Cable said.
The number of clients has been going up some each year. Last year there were about 930. This year it was 960. They still get it done in one day.
“Everyone stays all day, except for a few who have to get to work,” Cable said. “They love doing it.”
One of her faithful helpers through the process is her husband Kent. The couple has been together 50 years, and been in the middle of Christmas Cheer for at least 25. Having that kind of experience is key to the operation running as smoothly as it does.
“We learn a little bit every year and keep making it more efficient,” Kent Cable said. “It makes it a better experience for the people who are coming there in need of food. It’s better for the volunteers as well, as they have the whole food distribution wrapped up in a day.” He said the distribution is the fun part of the process.
“We all get the blessings,” he said. “It makes it easier to sign up for next year.”
Two days after the food distribution, there is a Christmas gift ministry for children at the church. The church gymnasium is transformed into a mini-Walmart. People who have met eligibility requirements through the Samaritan Center arrive at the church at a scheduled time on December 7. They are met by a shopper and youth who help them shop and carry items. The ministry is organized by Susie Wetzel.
“It’s great. I get to shop all year long and don’t have to pay,” Wetzel said.
They’ve got the right person on the job as Wetzel has the shopping down to a science. She has seasonal clearance sales on her calendar, and works with store managers for discounts to stretch the church’s dollars as far as possible. By doing it year after year, she has built beneficial relationships with stores.
“Walmart is really good to us,” she said.
Each child gets a new shirt, three pairs of socks, a pack of underwear, a bundle of books, a family game, crayons and a selection of toys. Children age 3 and under received stuffed animals.
“I try to avoid trinkets and junk,” Wetzel said.
The local Knights of Columbus gave the ministry 80 new coats, and Wetzel already had several that she had purchased on clearance sales, so there was a big supply. The local firefighters provided new or refurbished bicycles, which are stored in the church’s handball area.
“We had to kick the handball guys out for a week or two,” she said. Clients also receive a $10 movie pass, a $10 McDonald’s gift card and a $3 movie rental voucher.
In a similar fashion to the food distribution, they run 20 clients through the shopping area every 15 minutes.
“We walk fast,” Wetzel said.
Wetzel has been involved in the ministry over 40 years, getting started soon after she moved to Clinton from Alabama. Items gathered throughout the year are stored in the church basement. Starting on Sunday, things are brought up for display in the gymnasium. By mid-afternoon on Monday everything is in place.
Schools support the ministry, and the Catholic church sends their youth group there to help. Local organizations, like the Elks, and businesses like community banks all pitch in for the cause.
“We’re not too proud to ask for help,” Wetzel said. “People love what we do here. We just feel like it gives people a little boost for the holidays.”
Wetzel has been working with Christmas Cheer for about 40 years. The food and the gift distribution used to be one event, but it was divided so they would have enough room and food wouldn’t have to be moved from the food pantry to the church. She said she and all of the volunteers involved are very blessed by being able to make someone’s Christmas a little bit better.
“We all put on smiles for the shopping day. It can be an emotional day. Some people have really had some bad breaks,” Wetzel said.