Saturday, June 3, 2023

The Ukiah Valley Christmas Effort, A 77-Year-Old Tradition

The following is a press release issued by the Community Foundation of Mendocino County composed by Susan Baird Kanaan, a local writer working with the foundation to highlight the work of local non-profits:

Sheryl Graves, the President of the Ukiah Valley Christmas Effort [Pictures provided by the Community Foundation of Mendocino County]

Nonprofit organizations in Mendocino County are vital to a thriving community, and support for these critical organizations is at the heart of the Community Foundation’s mission. We have partnered with Susan Baird Kanaan, a local writer, to pen a series of articles highlighting the work of our nonprofits, including this feature on the Ukiah Christmas Effort. Since 2011, the Ukiah Valley Christmas Effort has received $79,960 in grants thanks to the following funds: Hunger Express Poverty Fund, Mabel Albertson Fund, Ted and Wilma  Westman Donor-Advised Fund, and the Vivian Martin Fund. 

The Ukiah Valley Christmas Effort 

Sheryl Graves, President of the Ukiah Valley Christmas Effort, says this annual community  giving activity “is not just about toys for kids; it’s about keeping the magic in their lives.” This year, some 1200 school-age children in 425 families in an area stretching from Hopland to Potter Valley will benefit. Just as importantly, community members have a readymade way to share with their neighbors. 

It truly takes a village to pull off the Christmas Effort. It is run entirely by volunteers, powered by hundreds of community members who collectively buy, organize, select, and wrap quality gifts—two per child—and deliver them with a box of Christmas food to needy families on  Christmas Eve morning. Donated gifts and $30,000 in monetary donations make it all possible. 

The Christmas Effort was created in 1945 by school principals and teachers who wanted all their students to have something special at Christmas. Over the years, it grew in scale, was a Soroptimist project for a while, and ultimately became a nonprofit, headed by Shirley Grover.  After her unexpected death, her family ran it for a year or two before appealing for help in 2013. 

Piles of presents waiting to be distributed to local families

Enter Sheryl Graves, who decided she “could wrap a few gifts.” Sheryl already had considerable leadership experience in activities benefiting children, including her own three. Two things happened that first year that led her to get more involved. First, she realized that with her skills  and experience, “I could help this group.” Second, she was moved by a family that pulled up to  Santa’s Workshop after all the gifts and food had been sent out for delivery. “They had nothing except the car they were living in. So I quickly found a few things their child could get ‘from  Santa’ on Christmas. Something like that happens every year. It grabs your heart and keeps you  going.” Once her decision was made, Sheryl moved quickly into a leadership role, rebuilding the board and reconstructing operating processes. 

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It’s a complex operation, in which schools play a pivotal role. Families apply through their schools (or homeless shelters and a few churches), specifying their children’s ages and wish lists. 

From these applicants, the Christmas Effort identifies the 425 neediest families. Meanwhile,  community members contribute gifts, supplemented by the organizers using donated funds. The gifts are arrayed on tables in categories (balls, toy vehicles, books, dolls, and so on) in a donated space of 15,000 square feet that is transformed into Santa’s Workshop. Volunteers then “shop”  for just the right gift for each child, and these gifts are wrapped and labeled. Multiply that process by 1,200. 

Christmas food, including a turkey, stuffing, potatoes, carrots, apples, and a cookie mix, is assembled and boxed. Then comes Christmas-Eve delivery day, which Sheryl calls “a well-oiled  machine.” About 50 volunteers, including families that have done it for years as their Christmas tradition, pick up gifts and food from Santa’s Workshop and deliver them to recipient families.  Multiply that by 425. 

Dozens of bikes ready to be ridden by the boys and girls of Ukiah

There are many ways to donate money and/or gifts to the Christmas Effort. Those wishing to contribute new things that kids like can drop them in labeled barrels located in businesses around town. For more targeted giving, a tree at Redwood Credit Union is hung with the names, ages,  and wishes of individual kids. These gifts, marked with the recipient’s name, can be dropped in a  barrel and unwrapped. Those wishing to adopt a family can contact the Christmas Effort by phone or email (see below). Finally, monetary donations can be mailed to the PO box or brought to  Santa’s Workshop when it’s open. 

There are also several options for volunteering. To help choose and wrap gifts, drop in once or often to Santa’s Workshop—this year, the former Curry’s Furniture in Ukiah—at the address listed below. (Check the Facebook page for hours of operation.) Young people are welcome singly, in small groups, or with parents. To help with deliveries, show up at Santa’s Workshop in your vehicle on December 24 between 8 and 9 AM. 

This is the ninth year that Sheryl Graves has led the Christmas Effort. She marvels at community members’ generosity with time, money, and gifts throughout the season. She expresses concern,  though, that the pool of people able and willing to take on essential leadership responsibilities has waned. And she needs to share the load. “We need to reinvent ourselves again,” she says.  “As much as my heart gets out of it, I can’t sustain it alone.” She is now analyzing how this cherished tradition can be broken into manageable parts that could be shared among a number of people or groups, in hopes that others will step up, as she did. 

“It’s well worth the effort”, she says. “The heart stuff is the reward—the things that fill your soul up. That’s Christmas.” 

Ukiah Valley Christmas Effort 

Sheryl Graves, President 
P.O. Box 801, Ukiah, CA 95482 
(707) 272-9627
Tax ID #33-1101697 
2022 Santa’s Workshop: 245 E. Standley St., Ukiah (formerly Curry’s Furniture)

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MendoFever Staff
MendoFever Staff
Editor's Note: Whenever an article's byline reads "MendoFever Staff", the contents of that article were not composed by any of our reporters. Types of writing that will be attributed to "MendoFever Staff" include press releases, letters to the editor, op-eds, obituaries— essentially writing that is not produced by a reporter.

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