12/18/2013 12:03:00 PM Angel Tree shares joy of giving
Members of the Rice Lake Fire Department volunteer their services each holiday season to deliver gifts to children helped by the Angel Tree program. Gearing up for this season’s deliveries, from left, are Captain Mike Anderson, firefighter Trent Kohel, motor pump operators Jeff Frank and Doug Ripplinger and firefighter Jim Baisden with firefighter Mike Hover in the fire truck. With them is Angel Tree coordinator Jodi Bunnell.
Ruth Erickson Chronotype staff
Once again this Christmas, residents are remembering little angels residing in the local area through Project Angel Tree coordinated by Rainbow Home Center at 1124 Hammond Ave. The local project, now in its 17th year, aims at children ages 16 and younger who live in Rice Lake or within 10 miles of the city.
Association idea Jodi Bunnell, one of the store owners, said the idea came from Midwest Hardware Assn., an organization that hardware stores belong to, and was suggested in its newsletter. Rainbow store owners and staff liked the idea, which fit well with its slogan of "dedicated to serving our customers and community." Each year, from mid-November to the first week in December, members of the community may go to the store's customer service desk and fill out a form with their children's first names and ages and an address where gifts can be delivered. Requests have ranged from 25 to 50 each season, with about 30 this year. "It's down this year, which is surprising," Bunnell said. Most times parents request help due to being unemployed, laid off or just without enough income to make ends meet. There have also been grandparents on fixed incomes who do not have any extra income for Christmas gifts and have requested gifts for their grandchildren. Once the store staff has the names of children, boy and girl cards and their ages are attached to the Rainbow Angel Tree. Customers can select cards of their choosing, then are asked to stop by the service counter for more information on the child's interests and wishes. Bunnell said that oftentimes the wishes include one major item, like a winter coat, boots or clothing. Each child also receives a toy. "We're seeking the help of our customers and community," Bunnell said. "We ask that they spend about $25." "We have loyal customers who year after year come back and take several names off the tree," she said. Bunnell asks that unwrapped gifts be dropped off at the store, where she and her staff wraps them. "Some are more generous than others," she explained. "When you have multiple kids in a family, then we try and be equal with packages for each child." Thanks to a toy drive put on by the Heart of the North Builders Assn. at their installation banquet/holiday party, donated toys are used to supplement what individuals give. Any extra toys at the end of each year's Project Angel Tree are given to Operation Santa, another local drive. "Heart of the North Builders Assn. has been holding an annual toy and food drive among its members since its first holiday party in 2002," said Barb Ritzinger, executive officer of the Heart of the North Builders Assn. "Since at least 2006, collected toys have gone to support Rainbow Home Center's Angel Tree Project; items not used there move on to the Moose Lodge's Operation Santa Claus. Food donations rotate among food pantries throughout the association's membership territory, which includes Barron and Rusk counties." She added, "Although the number of donations has never been documented, typically at least 90% of party attendees bring donations, with most bringing multiple items. "The members of Heart of the North Builders Assn. firmly believe in supporting local community charitable projects, and their annual toy and food drive is one way of allowing all members to give back to the communities which support their businesses." Ritzinger said, "Jodi Bunnell of Rainbow Home Center is an active member of the Builders Assn. and is currently serving as president-elect. The fact that this for-profit business dedicates so much effort supporting the less fortunate of the area should serve as an example to all. Rainbow truly lives up to HNBA's motto Building Better Communities." Also helping with the project for about the last 10 years are firefighters with the Rice Lake Fire Department, who deliver the toys in their fire trucks the weekend before Christmas. "Years ago we had an employee who was a part-time firefighter," Bunnell said. Through that employee/firefighter, the partnership began and has continued. Motor Pump Operator Jeff Frank said the department was looking for something to do for the community. He said they try to deliver the gifts when the children are home, usually the Saturday morning before Christmas. Before the firefighters began volunteering their services, store staff delivered the gifts. "I remember taking my kids with me when we delivered gifts," said Bunnell, whose kids are now ages 27 and 30. Although she has not saved the thank-you notes they have received over the year from families helped by Project Angel Tree, Bunnell said the common theme that runs through all of them is that it has been a tough year, for one reason or another, and gifts received were appreciated. Bunnell said that many times the gesture of kindness is returned. "We have had children whose names have been on the tree and their family's situation has improved and they come back and take names off the tree to pay it forward," she said.
Coats for all Coats for the Community, now in its fifth year, is another way the store and its customers are giving back to the community. Local residents of any age in need of a warm coat to get through the winter are welcome to browse the rack of donated coats in the lower level of the store. Those who find suitable coats are welcome to them. Bunnell said she started the coat program the year she and her husband bought the store, partly due to a childhood memory. The sad but true memory involved her mother, the late Judy Ashlin. "Years ago I remember my mom was trying to help out a family. We had some money to help them, but not a lot. She thought if she could get coats donated, she would give them to the family." This was before Goodwill came to town. The thrift and secondhand stores that were in town at the time turned down her request. "There was no local thrift store that would help her," said Bunnell. "She bought coats for the family because she could not get anybody to donate them." Bunnell remarked, "That's one of the biggest reasons I came up with it. People who don't have money don't have enough to even buy a coat at a secondhand store." The used coats are available throughout the winter or until gone. Any that remain come March are given to Benjamin's House homeless shelter. Bunnell said about 75-100 coats were given away the first year and an average of 75 coats each year since. So far this year, about 60 people have received free coats. All donations, new or used are appreciated. She said that some people have donated brand new coats, hats and mittens, purchased off-season, on clearance or when a store goes out of business. "This community is very generous," Bunnell said.
Community-minded This is the third season that Rainbow has hosted the Rice Lake Chamber of Commerce's Children's Christmas Corner in the basement of the store. The annual event features Santa's helpers, who assist children ages 4 through Grade 5 to purchase and wrap gifts for their parents, grandparents or siblings. The store also offers free gift wrapping during the holiday season for a donation to the Salvation Army's red bucket. "It's a small way for us to give back to the community," Bunnell said.