Serving Addison County since 1965, H.O.P.E (Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects) is a local non-profit organization located right here in Middlebury, Vermont. It runs one of the largest food shelves and retail stores in the county, where all of its donations aid the organization’s poverty relief work. And this year, even with coronavirus hovering over us, H.O.P.E did not let that stop their work in fulfilling their mission. Instead, they modified their procedures to ensure safety and continued onwards with their efforts.
Like many other aspects of our lives and the world, the annual HOPE Holiday Shop saw changes and challenges due to the pandemic. Regardless of the limitations set, the program achieved its core purpose in helping families who could not otherwise afford to purchase new gifts provide something a little special for children this holiday season.
Usually in past years, the Center for Community Engagement coordinated with HOPE to provide campus support by organizing gift drives and raising donations. This year, unfortunately, that was unfeasible and the event looked a little different. Pre COVID-19, the program allowed families to enter its Holiday Shop at 282 Boardman St. and to browse gifts on-the-spot. Conversely, this holiday season HOPE took the operation virtually online by offering donors two ways to contribute: one by letting donors select their choice of gift by virtually shopping online for HOPE to purchase on their behalf and the other option by directly making earmarked donations.
Although HOPE was able to amass gifts from these donations and bring in festive spirits like previous years, Kate Selby, coordinator of the HOPE Holiday Shop, commented on the challenge of how without the ability to run toy drives, these virtual donations might not have been as satisfying as donating actual items. Selby further shared how hard it was for HOPE to not see families come into the shop, roam around, and make their own gift selections. Even when faced with this challenge, Selby noted the highlight of her work as “a wonderful feeling to bring a bright spot to our families in need.”
The Center for Community Engagement’s AmeriCorps members, Tenzin Dorjee and Jilly dos Santos, who volunteered at the HOPE Holiday Shop this past December both reflected on their contribution during a time when human connection has tremendously changed. Tenzin Dorjee, the campus coordinator for the HOPE Holiday Shop, shared how human care and holiday love was still present in the air in spite of the no in-person typical Holiday Shop. “From packing a couple of the gifts to handing it to families through the window and saying ‘Happy Holidays, enjoy!’ it was touching” Tenzin says.
Firsthand experience volunteering behind the program also showed both Tenzin and Jilly the difficulties involved. As gifts continued to be packed and distributed, the inventory slowly began seeing drops. Kate Selby mentioned inventory for the shop has always been hard. This year, particularly, gifts towards the end of its stock were bundled or substituted based not only on families ranked gift preferences but also what was left on the shelves. With the gift forms families completed, Jilly shared how she needed to make some assumptions based on the forms and got a sense of the child based on gift selections made by parents. She told this story of how “one father wrote detailed notes by each category that were both very helpful and honestly nearly made me tear up because it was so clear how much he cared about having his daughter’s present feel personal.”
With the holiday season passed us, these changes and challenges the HOPE Holiday Shop encountered this year have only strengthened the organization’s work. Although Kate believes “it will be better to get back to “normal” as soon as possible, she says, “if things need to remain remote next season, we will be ready!”