Families around Fillmore County will be participating in Christmas in Fillmore County. These are some of the items that have been donated for Christmas gifts. BRETTA GRABAU/NEWS LEADER
Christmastime is the season of giving and residents in Fillmore County show their giving spirit each year through Christmas in Fillmore County. This countywide effort makes sure everyone, no matter what their financial or social situations, have presents under their tree on Christmas morning.
While the program has been going for a few decades, gaining strength and impact each year, it had a more humble beginning. It actually started as a simple 4-H project.
“Roughly 25 years ago, the 4-H club called and asked my counterpart at that time, Judy Stenbeck, if she knew a family that was in need and what they needed,” stated Lynn Mensink, Preston’s Semcac director and orchestrator of the current project.
As the Semcac contact, Stenbeck knew families who needed assistance and gave the 4-H club ideas of what the families needed and wanted. Armed with this information, the club stormed stores and raided shelves to purchase as much as possible for the family’s Christmas presents.
News spread around the community of what the students had done, and soon more people began asking what they could do to continue the project.
As the months and years passed, what began as a simple 4-H project has now morphed into a county-wide activity. Each year, generous people work together to help bring Christmas to those who may not be as able to buy presents for each other.
“Someone from each organization of Semcac, the Extension office, Public Health and Social Services formed the Rural Concerns Task Force. Several ladies got together around the time we had the farm crisis here. More people wanted to become involved in buying gifts,” Mensink described.
Since each organization worked and assisted more low-income families, they all knew just what the people would need and how great that need actually was.
By the time most of this had already taken place, Lynn Mensink arrived at Semcac. She had been there for a few years when she took the place of Stenbeck as coordinator of Christmas in Fillmore County.
For a time, Mensink shouldered the majority of the planning and organizing of the event. However, as it continued to grow in numbers and responsibility, she realized just how monumental a job it was growing into.
“Over the years, it has grown so big and now we are at 231 families signed up for it this year,” Mensink said. “Figuring three kids per family, that number totals around 650 kids county-wide that are in Christmas in Fillmore County. Toys For Tots also became involved eventually.”
As the event grew and the need for help became even more apparent, some of the responsibility was doled out to other volunteers. Mensink now has two more co-conspirators in LeeAnn Howard from the Extension office and Anne Detlefson from Fillmore County Advocates.
As the Christmas in Fillmore County grew, other groups immersed themselves with helping as well. Students in 4-H still shop for the families, just as their counterparts did all those years ago. The Kiwanians in Spring Valley also contribute to the shopping for presents.
While each coordinator, shopper and donor are all extremely important in this process, the sponsors for the activity could be one of the most important part in making Christmas in Fillmore County a success.
“We have enough money to shop for the activity. We have amazing sponsors and organizations that send money,” Mensink said. “They may not have the time or the ability to shop, but they are amazing.”
Every year Mensink begins searching for support by sending out letters to sponsors of the previous Christmas in Fillmore County. Those sponsors decided how many kids they will buy for or give money for others to use purchasing the presents. Of course, since each child is different, there is a tremendous variety of presents and necessities available for the families.
“There are lots of people collecting for the event. It’s amazing to see all the things we do as a part of it. It is a really busy week and pretty exciting,” Mensink noted.
Families apply to receive gift through Christmas in Fillmore County, but there are always several people who walk in on the day of distribution. Some distribution sites have more families signed up than others. Still, there always is enough to go around thanks to the generosity of the sponsors and all who donate gifts at the drop-off sites.
“The parents are so appreciative and you get lots of hugs. It is amazing to see and be a part of this. And working together makes it much more fun,” Mensink commented.
Last year, Mensink explained Christmas in Fillmore County also provided gifts and support to grandparents who are in need as well.
This year, unfortunately, there is no Grandparents Day, much to the disappointment of many. Although there is also a need among this age group, the group is unable to balance both categories.
“We want to focus on families,” Mensink added. “We used to do a Grandparents Day, but we just can’t do it.”
This week was the culmination of two months of work and organization poured into Christmas in Fillmore County. Distribution has already taken place at Rushford and Spring Valley, but Preston and Mabel are still yet to come. On Thursday, Dec. 18, from 5 to 8 p.m., and Friday, Dec. 19, from 9 to 12 a.m., participants will be picking up their gifts at the back door of the Community Office at 209 Houston in Preston. The Mabel distribution day is Saturday, Dec. 20, at the United Methodist Church from 1 to 3 p.m.
“We hope that we are not missing anyone who needs help. We focus more on the people who need it than those who don’t,” Mensink declared.
Christmas is coming and spreading a little holiday cheer to someone in need can make all the difference.