Lee from Operation Give Back gathers up us volunteers who are working today’s holiday free store. At over six feet, he’s an imposing African American man with a huge toothy smile. Part cheerleader, part motivational speaker, it’s impossible not to get excited listening to him.
“Let’s make this the best shopping experience they have all year!” he says. His speech is met by a splattering of applause and widespread head nodding.
Shoppers have been waiting in the frigid temperatures for over an hour to get in. For $5, they receive a $5 Kroger gift card and can “shop” the holiday free store. Families qualify for the store by living below the national poverty level.
I’ve been assigned to help as a personal shopper. This means I accompany one family through the store at a time and find things off their list, a detailed accounting of things they are allowed to “shop” for based on their family size and number of children living in their household.
Each shopper is limited to 30 minutes. As a personal shopper, I also need to gentle push to make sure we make it around to all the areas before time runs out.
My first customer is a single mother of five. Shana, her 12-year-old daughter, and I move forward into the crowded warehouse. Non-perishable food. Toilet paper. Tissue. Shoes. Clothes. Each family gets a blanket. Every child gets a coat.
I can tell Shana, warm and friendly, is the type of mom who gives lots of hugs. We talk easily about her kids. She’s clearly a proud momma.
“What size boys’ shoes do we need?” I ask.
“My boys are big,” she smiles. “Size 15.”
“Shana,” I laugh. “I don’t even know what size 15 looks like!” There’s nothing close to fitting her 6 foot 4 son so we move on to women’s clothes.
In a back corner, items fill three tables. It’s here kids may shop for presents for their parents.
“I’ll block your mom so she can’t see what you pick out,” I say, pointing Shana’s daughter towards the parent gift table. I hold up two fingers. "Pick two," I mouth. In the back, two Sycamore High School students wrap presents that kids choose.
Shana seems thrilled about the idea of a wrapped present for herself on Christmas morning. With five kids, I wonder how many years she’s done without.
Shana and I turn a corner and continue to fill her cart to the point of overflowing. Socks. Scarfs. Shampoo. Conditioner. Razors.
We stop at the toys. “Each child gets one small, one medium and one large.” New board games, LEGO kits, footballs and Barbie dolls line the walls.
Shana reaches over and gives me a hug. “I’m never going to forget this,” she says.