Yuletide projects bringing the tears
by RICK NORTON, Associate Editor
Dec 31, 2012 | 1104 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Brenda Lawson
Brenda Lawson
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Hearts of community volunteers are warmed when they are given the opportunity to help others in need, especially at Christmastime; and those same hearts melt when a recipient says “thank you.”

When the thoughtful words come from a child who has decorated by hand a homemade card, the floor gets even a little wetter from tears of joy that combine with the melting hearts to create rivers of emotion.

Such was the case with the recent 17th annual Creating Christmas Memories, a shopping event for area children hosted by Kmart and made possible through a partnership between the retailer, the Cleveland and Bradley County school systems and their principals and teachers, the Cleveland Police Department, the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office and the school resource officers across the community.

The Creating Christmas Memories Foundation, chaired by Cleveland businesswoman and philanthropist Brenda Lawson, led the charge.

The final child to shop in the Dec. 9 event — among a total of about 1,300 — brought with her an envelope addressed to “Mrs. Lawson.” In it was a thank-you card created by a little girl named Natalya.

According to Sandra Rowland, a board member of the Creating Christmas Memories Foundation whose office files now safely house the endearing note, the card’s wording reads, “Mrs. Lawson! May Luke 6:38 be in your life and may everyone give back to you the way you’ve given to me ... Love, Natalya.”

Beside her signature is a “little heart,” and the card’s cover features a “big, red heart.”

“Needless to say, Brenda and we as volunteers shed a few tears when we saw the note,” Rowland reflected. “But it wiped away the exhaustion we felt having been at the mall since around 7 a.m. It lifted our spirits.”

Natalya hand-delivered the handcrafted “thank you.”

“She made our Christmas!” Rowland, who is also director of marketing for Brenda Lawson & Associates, exclaimed. “She and her mom both gave Brenda a thank-you note. We will guard [Natalya’s] last name, but her mother has offered her services to volunteer to be of service to us in the future as she is needed.”

As another Christmas season surrenders to the promise of a new year, holiday initiatives across the community — including those operated as established annual drives, as well as many others conducted by churches, neighborhoods, nonprofits and individuals — are getting plenty of cards and letters of thanks and appreciation, as well.

Throughout town, children and entire families have received support, gifts of love and acts of kindness. Not all these well-intended drives have received community exposure. Some are low profile yet are just as meaningful to the recipients and the givers.

Too, it’s not all about Christmas beneficiaries doing the thanking. In plenty of cases, program coordinators are reaching out to donors, and the community, in appreciation for another year of support.

One is the 64th annual Cleveland Christmas Party for Children which this year provided more than 600 children with toys, food and clothing. The community event is made possible through the Mix 104.1 WCLE Empty Stocking Fund which this year set a record with $40,700 in pledges.

The giant party was hosted for the first time in the Paul Dana Walker Arena on the Lee University campus because of its size. The initiative’s growth — both in family need and community popularity — outgrew the smaller gymnasiums at Mayfield and Stuart Elementary schools. The program was founded by the Rev. M.E. Littlefield in the 1940s.

Like Creating Christmas Memories, those helping to coordinate the Children’s Christmas Party have been quick to thank program supporters.

“I want to thank Dr. Paul Conn and Dr. Walt Mauldin [at Lee University] for welcoming us and providing the larger facility,” said Steve Hartline, station owner of Mix 104.1 WCLE. “We had to have a larger place as the party has grown each year. I also want to thank our volunteers. We had about 50 to set up on that Friday ... and we had about 70 registered to help [on Dec. 22, the day of the event].”

Hartline added, “I thank the hundreds of people who gave to children from their heart. We are able to give all new toys to these children because of the generosity of this community. I thank the Cleveland Daily Banner for their critical support through the years.”

Another popular Christmastime program is the William Hall Rodgers Christmas Basket Fund which this year provided boxes of food staples to 980 Cleveland and Bradley County families. The fund’s goal is $24,000 and is still accepting donations in hopes of covering the full cost of the food through this year’s drive.

The Basket Fund was expected to continue receiving contributions through the end of the year. Further information will be provided as it is made available. The Basket Fund has attained nonprofit status and is operated solely through volunteers.

Another growing yuletide drive that relies on volunteers, donors and business sponsors is the third annual Refuge Community Christmas. This year, The Refuge helped more than 200 families representing about 460 children with gifts and toys, some of which were even purchased by the parents at a 90 percent discount during the event’s tent sale. All proceeds are used toward the following year’s Christmas event.

The Refuge’s Christmas party provided two gifts per child, and in most cases a third through the tent sale.

Kelli Kyle, director of Community Involvement, said East Cleveland parents — whose families are the nonprofit’s primary focus — enjoy purchasing from the sale because the gifts are affordable and the selection process not only empowers, but helps to build self-esteem.

Kyle also recognizes the role of outside support.

“The Refuge Community Christmas is truly a community event,” she said. “We could never do this alone. This is the result of the entire community — businesses, churches, individuals, various groups and even other nonprofits.”

Like her Christmastime counterparts — the Cleveland Christmas Party for Children, the William Hall Rodgers Christmas Basket Fund and The Refuge Community Christmas, among many others — the Creating Christmas Memories Foundation is led by a community-minded philanthropist (Brenda Lawson) who believes in the power, and in the value, of a thank you.

The successful businesswoman, who takes a low-key personal approach in her philanthropic leadership, credited Creating Christmas Memories supporters in a pre-Christmas message that was published in a display ad in the Dec. 23, 2012, edition of the Cleveland Daily Banner. Text from the ad was also published in Sunday’s issue as a “Letter to the Editor.”

In it, Lawson acknowledged the growing number of volunteers and the level of support by donors whose efforts make the seasonal campaign possible.

“This project takes months and months of work, hundreds of people and hundreds of man hours to make it all come together each year,” Lawson said via the community message. “There is no way I could possibly say ‘thank you’ in person to all the people who worked to make the event possible.”

She added, “For this reason, I choose to write this ‘Open Letter’ in the Cleveland Daily Banner in hopes it reaches the people who volunteered their time and talents to make this day a success.”

Lawson credited the principals, teachers, school resource officers and volunteers in each of the city and county elementary schools, area high school and college students who give their time to help, the city police department, the Sheriff’s Office, and specifically Tim Reneau, Kmart manager.

“... They [Reneau and staff] have once again come through with flying colors,” Lawson stressed. “They opened their store to a flurry of fast-paced and hectic activities. The management and staff are patient and helpful as each child comes through the aisles, and at the checkout counters bagging their new toys and clothing.”

Of older students who assist with Creating Christmas Memories, Lawson pointed out, “I am always proud of our area high school and college students when they come each year to help the younger children shop. They are terrific role models for these youngsters as they patiently take them through the aisles and help them to choose clothing and toys.”

Lawson paid particular attention as well to area individuals and businesses whose financial donations lay the groundwork for Creating Christmas Memories.

The businesswoman, who is a Cleveland native, also looked to the event’s longlasting impact.

“While the personal shopping day is a great experience for the children, the real reason for this project is not just the toys and clothing,” she said. “It is an effort to reach out to deserving children and to show them they live in a community of caring, loving and concerned people. It is my hope that we are preparing our youth for tomorrow and encouraging them to give back to others when they become adults.”

Lawson added, “This year marked the first year we have seen children who shopped with us in the past come forward to be volunteers. This was the most rewarding aspect and what this program is all about — preparing children to give back.”

She said memories from the Sunday morning event “... will remain in the hearts of many people who gave of their time to make it happen. Many volunteers come back year after year, and it is heartwarming to hear how much it means to them to be a part of this day. For many, the shopping day is just the beginning of lasting friendships made between volunteers, the children and their families.”

The Cleveland native said she is a product of the community’s “... love, care and support,” and pointed to its favorable impact on her life and in her commitment to bring Creating Christmas Memories to the community.

She closed her “thank you” message to program supporters by noting, “You have proven once again there are ‘angels among us.’ God bless each of you and your families ...”