The basement floor within the GRACE (Greater Rolla Area Charitable Enterprise)
building on Elm Street is as busy as one of Santa's workshops at the North Pole. However, while Santa uses a crew of elves to get his mission accomplished, GRACE relies on a long list of dedicated volunteers to make Christmas special for more 400 needy families in Phelps County.
The basement floor within the GRACE (Greater Rolla Area Charitable Enterprise) building on Elm Street is as busy as one of Santa's workshops at the North Pole. However, while Santa uses a crew of elves to get his mission accomplished, GRACE relies on a long list of dedicated volunteers to make Christmas special for more 400 needy families in Phelps County. Some of these volunteers have been helping since the organization began in the early 2000s.
“In the course of two weeks, which we call ‘GRACE for Christmas,’ we will have more than 200 volunteers here wrapping presents and preparing food baskets,” said Linda Soltera who coordinates this annual drive.
In-need families whose applications for assistance are accepted, receive boxes of clothing items, winter gloves, books, toys, a stocking full of goodies; and even shoes and winter coats if needed. All of it is brand new and meticulously wrapped and ready to go under a lit-up Christmas tree. In essence, it is “Christmas in a box,” for these families. However as Soltera notes, it's more of a labor of love for the community by the community.
“This whole program only rolls because of the community,” she told The Rolla Daily News. “We have collection baskets and wish trees up at dozens of businesses and all the area schools this time of year. All that I can say is that they give and keep giving.”
She added that while “the magic” occurs at the GRACE offices during the first weeks of December, this Christmas charity is a year-long push.
“We start on December 26 buying all the wrapping paper and stocking stuffers that go on sale for the next Christmas,” Soltera explained. “As well, we receive donations or gifts throughout the year that need to be sorted and organized. Then there are toy drives and food drives and that all has to make its way here to our offices through out the year.”
In short, GRACE for Christmas has developed into a well-oiled, gift-giving machine. The basement is set up like a department store with shelves for girls’ toys, teen items, shoes and socks, and that's just to start.
In the middle of it all, are long tables tables where a flurry of volunteers are putting together the gift boxes, wrapping toys, tying bows and checking their lists twice. Soltera estimates that they will use around 400 rolls of wrapping paper.
“They're big rolls,” she quipped.
While the women wrap presents downstairs, an equally dedicated group of men put together boxes of food upstairs at the GRACE offices. According to leader Dave Dearth, thousands of cans of corn, green peas and boxes of cereal need to be packed up,ready to be shipped out this time each year.
“We want to make this season special for our clients,” he said.
Like the gift department downstairs, the food operation is a year-round labor of love. Volunteers pick up food at area food drives and hundreds of sturdy banana boxes are collected from area grocery stores on a weekly basis.
Dwaine Miles has been a regular volunteer at GRACE for Christmas for more than 15 years. He started after he retired.
“I just love to do it,” he said. “I'm grateful that we have enough food for those who really need it.”
The men are also in charge of delivering the Christmas packages to those who have no way of picking them up. Dearth estimates that they will drop off around 80 boxes of presents and food this year alone.
“There is a method to the madness,” noted longtime volunteer Melba Read. She has been a volunteer since 2009 and turns her volunteer work with GRACE into a full-time job each Christmas season. “The best part of all of this is to see the joy on the faces of the people when they come to pick up their packages. Some say that it's the only Christmas their kids will receive. That's what this season is all about.”