Beginning in 2000, Grace and Peace Community Center, a ministry in Chicago, Ill., associated with a Christian Reformed congregation of the same name, began giving toys and winter coats away during the holidays. In 2011, after more than a decade, Grace and Peace turned their annual giving into a unique and empowering event: a low-cost Christmas store.
While the shop is open in December, preparation begins as early as July. Five key staff members, including Angelina Zayas, the ministry’s executive director, collaborate with the church and community to find donors and allocate funds. Social services and the local schools help Grace and Peace identify families in need. The center creates a love tree decorated with names of gift options that donors can remove to purchase and donate. In addition to gifts from individual donors, each year, a specific agency provides the majority of brand-new, quality gifts. For the 2018 season, World Vision stepped in. Another long-term donor purchases winter coats, and Lombard (Ill.) CRC provides turkey dinner hampers. This year, Grace and Peace had 150 coats and 125 turkey dinners to share with clients.
After the donations come in, the center’s choice to present the gifts in a “Christmas store” sets Grace and Peace apart from other agencies. Here, on the second Saturday in December, parents’ limited income doesn’t preclude them from selecting and purchasing gifts for their children. While the young children play in the Winter Wonderland, parents shop for gifts priced between 25 cents and $1. A “shopping elf” accompanies each client to carry presents, take them to the gift wrapping station, and help them select a food basket. “It is an ownership thing to say that they bought the gift,” Zayas explained, underscoring that this opportunity is empowering for parents. However, if clients cannot afford to spend any money, Grace and Peace will offer the gifts free of charge.
The number of families served has grown, Zayas said, so in 2018 they moved the operation to the church’s new North Austin neighborhood location from the center’s Hermosa neighborhood. This year’s event, held Dec. 8, also featured music from three different cultural traditions reflecting the diversity of the community. About 50 volunteers helped to serve 100 families, including 293 kids.