The joy of giving: Grand Lake’s Secret Santa Shop spreads holiday spirit
Between angel trees, toy drives and holiday sales, and voucher programs, Grand County offers residents plenty of ways to give to children in need this holiday season. However, one local program attempts to flip the script and help children give gifts to others.
The Secret Santa Shop is a program that allows local children to shop for their parents or guardians, as well as their pets, at no cost to the family. This year’s eighth annual event will be 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Grand Lake Center.
“I just had the idea because so much of Christmas is the commercialization, so I wanted to plant some seeds that it sure is fun to give,” said Deb Gahan, a former Grand Lake resident who created the program. “I’m hoping that when these kids see the delight in their parents, that will really stay with them.”
When a family visits the Secret Santa Shop, the parents are asked to hang out in a waiting room since “we want it to be a surprise,” Gahan said, while volunteers help escort kids to the shopping room, where they pick out their gifts.
What: Secret Santa Shop
When: 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Dec. 13-14
Where: Grand Lake Center, 301 Marina Dr.
Though the store is hosted in Grand Lake, it is open to all Grand County families with no questions asked.
Throughout the year, dozens of volunteers collect and buy gifts to stock the store, spending anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 each year, Gahan estimates.
Much of the funding comes through the Mountain Family Center’s Grand Angels fund, which formerly funded a wishlist program that grew into the Secret Santa Shop. The program is also sponsored by Grand Lake Fire and the Rotary Club of Grand Lake.
Cash donations collected by the volunteers and Mountain Family Center fill the fund.
“We’ve had programs in the community for a while that help out kids … but this is a different and unique idea that gives children the opportunity to give something back and to be able to experience that shopping,” said Katie Stuvel, marketing and events coordinator for Mountain Family Center. “It’s a gift to the parents, who are also working hard and appreciate something special.”
However, Gahan noted that she often purchases things throughout the year whenever she finds sales or deals on items she thinks would be a good fit for the program.
In previous years, the store has seen anywhere from 200-250 children shop its offerings, so the volunteers try to round up 300 gifts or more, including games, gift sets and pet treats. The store aims for each gift to be worth $10 on average.
“It’s delightful to watch them because their eyes get big,” Gahan said. “Each kid is so completely different in what they look for. Some know and go straight to pick it up, while some kids will be there an hour.”
Once all of the donations have been gathered, volunteers will set up the shop and wrapping center in the auditorium of the Grand Lake Center on Thursday to prepare for the weekend, according to organizer Jennifer Brown. Volunteers also set up a space for families to get pictures with Santa and a free stuffed animal tree so no one leaves empty-handed.
Both Brown and Gahan emphasized the goal of the program, aside from sharing holiday cheer with local families, is to show how giving can be as enjoyable as getting and instill children with the desire to give.
“To see our kids come in from Grand County and pick these gifts and (embrace) the giving season … is just amazing,” Brown said. “It’s a place where kids don’t think about getting. It’s a time to think about somebody else.”
Getting to see the children light up as they search for gifts is a reward in itself, Brown said, but she especially enjoys the way the program brings the community together.
“I get to see and talk and connect with community members that I may not see all year, but for a couple of weeks, we get together and we share Grand Lake and the spirit of Grand Lake,” she said. “I couldn’t be more proud of that.”
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Cranmer Chapel is offering a free chicken dinner from 5-7 p.m. tonight.