On Wednesday, December 6, over 100 kids, along with their parents/guardians, will be gathering at the Shell Lake Community Center to celebrate Christmas complete with bags of gifts, milk and cookies and a visit with Santa.
Few of them are aware that this night is an accumulation of the efforts of a great many people on their behalf, starting in September when hundreds of letters go out to surrounding businesses asking for donations to make Christmas for Kids a reality. But that's just the first step long-time coordinator, Gretchen Nielsen, takes to make the event a success each year.
Gretchen's always been a person that thoroughly enjoys Christmas, from the lighted pig on her front porch with the Santa suit on to the fully decorated tree in her living room to the playing of Christmas carols on the radio as soon as she can.
Even though she lives in the country, her front yard is full of lighted figurines, many of them deer and each year she adds a few more lights to the yard or her house to make it even more festive.
It's so bright when she lights them all that the question she gets now is “when are you lighting the runway this year?”
Employees get involved during November when Tammy Fee, the victim witness coordinator, begins the Penny War again and the fund-raising gloves come off as six county offices, including the Sheriff's Office, Public Health, the Courthouse, Human Services, the Annex, and Highway/Veterans go into coin-to-coin combat.
The rules are simple: each of the six buildings provide a gallon jar at their location and each department puts some pennies in it. Each penny counting as one point for the home team.
Now the fun begins. If someone comes in from another department and puts in a paper dollar, or coins, points are deducted from the pennies. In other words, if there are one hundred pennies to begin with, a dollar bill will knock out what the pennies are worth and the jar's total goes to zero.
Not only did Tammy originate the war, (this was her sixth year to be in charge of the game) but she's the one who has to count and register all the money to determine the winner. This year she announced that the winner of the contest was Public Health (Nursing Agency) much to the dismay of the Sheriff's Office who were “sabotaged” at the end by someone adding a sizable bill to their jar at the end.
Public Health will get a free cake from Economart for their efforts and each department can be proud of the money they raised-$718.65!
Unknown to all the other departments, Public Health decided to give the Sheriff's Office the cake this year as a consultation prize writing “Maybe next year Sheriff's Office" on the cake. Chief Deputy Mike Richter graciously accepted the winning cake and then invited Public Health to come over and have some. Somehow this taunt is tantamount to throwing down for gauntlet for next years Penny War, so stay tuned, it won't be pretty.
Another fund-raising opportunity came several years ago when the new owners of the Spooner Family Restaurant contacted Gretchen Nielson, the jailer/dispatcher who has been the head of the entire project for years, and wanting to honor their new hometown and the counties law enforcement personnel by not only putting up a collection jar on their counter, but dedicating all the profits from an entire day's business to Christmas for Kids. But there was a caveat; that law enforcement provided all the waitstaff for the day.
Their donation is sizable each year, and this from a man, Naim, who is from Macedonia and his dream had always been to become a citizen of the United States.
It was a lengthy process starting with coming as an exchange student to becoming an international student and finally becoming a citizen.
“I know what is is like to not have much,” he said. Growing up as poor as he had is the reason he volunteers his restaurant in order to help provide a wonderful Christmas to kids who would otherwise have very little.
Happily he and his wife Lira will be expecting their first child close to the date of the fund-raising.
Once all the money is collected, Gretchen personally calls each family whose names have been submitted by the local schools and the department of Health and Human Services.
She tells the parents/guardians about the program and checks to see if they want to be included. Then she asks what each child's needs are, things like boots, hats and coats, and then she asks where the children's interest lie, hunting, fishing, crafts? Then she asks about the toys they want.
After making all the calls and listing each family on a chart, members of the Sheriff's Office take one night and shop 'til they drop at the Rice Lake ShopKo, keeping the business local. The store includes a generous donation to the cause and after the shopping is finished on December 20, the gifts are lined up for the wrapping the following night.
On wrapping night, Gretchen provides a hot meal with the wrapping volunteers supplying the sides and dessert and then they all spend hours wrapping impossibly odd-shaped packages getting them ready for the following night, December 22, when the families are invited for the big night that celebrates to culmination of all the work hours that have gone into making this night special.
Gretchen is deeply grateful to the Shell Lake, Spooner, Birchwood and Minong Police Departments for their efforts to make Christmas for Kids a success each year.
The new kids on the block to give to the effort is the Avanti Food Service people who cook the jail meals for the inmates. This year they're supplying the white and chocolate milk and making cookies for the gift-giveaway night.
There are so many people who join together in an effort to make this night possible and if you would like to be involved, drop off your contribution to the Sheriff's Office during working hours or mail it to Christmas for Kids.
- 421 Highway 63,
- Shell Lake, Wi 54871
And if you should see Gretchen during this holiday season, give her a hug, shake her hand, or just pat her on the back and tell her, “Great job” once again this year.