November 18, 2014 | Leave a Comment
Students wrap presents at last year's Christmas store.
Campbell University will hold its fourth Community Christmas Store this week in Carter Gym, where low-income residents in Harnett County can shop for free Christmas presents for their children or grandchildren.
Expect to see Stephanie Bohannon ’13 there. She has volunteered for the store since it began in 2011. At the time, she was an undergraduate history major at Campbell looking to bond with other students in the Baptist Student Union and get involved with a service project. The Community Christmas Store provided her the chance to do both. It has since become much more to her.
Today, she’s a second-year Master of Divinity student at Campbell and a member of the store’s planning committee. Come Wednesday, Nov. 19, when the Community Christmas Store opens, she’ll be back to serving in what she calls the store’s best section -- childcare. There, she said, she gets to meet awesome children and watch movies and color with them; and she gets to speak with the parents or grandparents who drop them off and pick them up before and after shopping.
Bohannon loves these encounters, however brief, she said, because it gives her the opportunity to hear directly from the families about their backgrounds and to share with them her own experiences, too. “We have a chance to share our stories and see how they connect together,” she said.
That was why Campbell added the Community Christmas Store in 2011, said the Rev. Faithe Beam ’03 MDIV, the university’s campus minister. “As we move toward Christmas and the coming of Jesus, the Christ child, the store is a wonderful way to participate in the work of Emmanuel, God with us, in our world.”
The idea to bring the Community Christmas Store to Campbell four years ago began with Campus Ministry staff who volunteered at a similar store run by another organization. Beam thought the concept would be a good fit for Campbell.
It offered a way to deepen relationships with existing partners in the community and to provide another platform for faculty, staff, and students to reach their neighbors, she said. “The store fits wonderfully with our Christian mission.”
Consider how it works. The Office of Community Engagement, part of Campus Ministry, works jointly with organizations it has partnerships with to identify and connect with families who need assistance during the Christmas season. Such partners include the Baptist Fellowship of Angier Tutoring Program; the family care program at Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina’s Oak Ranch, which helps single-mother households transition to independent living; and Recruiters for Christ Church, in Dunn, which operates a food pantry.
Families in need then register with the Office of Community Engagement to shop at the Community Christmas Store either on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday during the week before Thanksgiving. Once on campus, parents or grandparents make their way through a makeshift store in Carter Gym to select up to three toys for each child or grandchild they have. After that, volunteers gift wrap the toys as parents or grandparents wait in an area with refreshments.
The toys -- free to the families -- are donated by the campus community or purchased by the Office of Community Engagement with monetary contributions. In its first year, the Community Christmas Store served 70 families and between 150 and 180 children. Last year, it was 87 families and toys for 223 children.
“The store is a wonderful opportunity to be involved with people in our community as well as fellow students, faculty, and staff,” Beam said.
It takes more than 300 volunteers to operate the Community Christmas Store. Those volunteers include student-athletes, student club members, sorority and fraternity pledges, Student Government Association representatives, student call team workers, CUFS classes, and faculty and staff from across the campus, among others.
They work in various capacities. Some help sort through toys or turn Carter Gym into a festive holiday retail space on Tuesday. Others work in shifts over Wednesday through Friday to wrap presents, provide childcare, serve refreshments, sign in families, or walk with parents or grandparents around the story as they shop.
“Whatever your personality and comfort zone, there is a way for you to give back to the community,” Bohannon said. “There’s room for everyone to get involved.”
Getting enough volunteers for the Community Christmas Store has never been much of an issue. But as the awareness of the store grows and the number of families referred to it increases, more toys (and financial support) are needed.
That’s what planning leaders told student Sue Ann Forrest during a meeting earlier this fall. A senior English and communication studies major, Forrest is taking Organizational Communication this semester. One of the class’s assignments was to work in groups on a service project. Her group chose the Community Christmas Store, and they took up the challenge to help raise funds to purchase toys.
The executive president of SGA, Forrest shared with the other SGA leaders the group’s idea: to tie the store to a favorite student tradition -- the Christmas tree lighting ceremony -- and sell ornaments that would be used to decorate the tree. The SGA approved selling ornaments for $5 each, with all proceeds going to the store. Those ornaments -- clear spheres with orange ribbons that bear the name of the donors and their graduation year -- adorn the Christmas tree on the Academic Circle.
With the help of the ornament sale, the store will provide toys for nearly 250 children this year.
“I can’t think of a better cause,” Forrest said. “Donors are helping make Christmas special for these children.”
Campbell has numerous service opportunities throughout the year for faculty, staff, and students. There’s the 9/11 Day of Service, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, Relay for Life, Mustard Seed Community Garden, Hunger & Homelessness Week, and Operation Inasmuch, as well as ongoing opportunities through organizations such as Habit for Humanity and Campus Compact and through Campus Ministry, Greek Life, and other student groups and clubs.
During Orientation this past summer, even before they had their first day of classes, first-year students packed food bags for Buddy Backpacks for Harnett County. Then, throughout the month of October, the students in Connections 100 -- primarily freshmen -- raised more than $1,015 for Buddy Backpacks, providing 193 meals over five weeks to children. (Students in Connections 200 raised $1,117 for Living Hope, a nonprofit based in Cape Town, South Africa, that takes a holistic approach to its ministries in health care, homelessness, substance abuse, and economic empowerment.)
In 2012 and 2013 alone, Campbell students, faculty, and staff completed more than 100,000 hours of service.
But the Community Christmas Store adds another element to the university’s service projects, said Trent Matthews ’11, ’14 MDIV, a representative of the Office of Community Engagement. It brings to campus the families whom faculty, staff, and students are serving.
“We are all about meeting people where they are,” Matthews said. “But there’s also that piece that once we go where they are, we need to invite them into our home. That’s what we’re doing through the Community Christmas Store.”
When you invite others into your own home, he continued, you play host, providing drinks and food and taking care of their needs. You’re not just serving them, he said. “You’re accepting them and making them feel welcomed. You’re deepening the relationship.”
The significance of this isn’t lost on student volunteers such as Bohannon and Rebecca Auten, a senior biology major.
Auten has served with the store the past couple years in the gift-wrapping and hospitality sections. As part of hospitality, she has walked with parents or grandparents throughout the store as they’ve shopped. This gives her time to fellowship with them, and it allows her “to see their faces light up as they choose a gift for their children or grandchildren,” she said.
These interactions matter, she said, because, especially as the end of the semester nears, it can be easy to get consumed by school work and forget about the outside world. But, she said, “The Community Christmas Store gives us a reminder right on campus on what is important -- loving others and giving back.”