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Grassroots giving program enjoys snowball effect

Christmas for Kids event, run by a Gresham business owner, hits its highest heights
by: Carole Archer, Volunteer shoppers Linda Tomar, left, and Gayle Morris assist Linzey Oulman, a fifth-grader at Butler Creek Elementary School, as she checks out at the Hollywood Fred Meyer this week.

PORTLAND - One day a year, the Hollywood Fred Meyer is transformed into a place where wishes come true. Generosity fills the air like a rare but benevolent virus, passing from shoppers to volunteers to children, spreading good cheer and lighting up faces with contagious smiles.

It's all due to the Christmas for Kids program, run by Bill Wilson, owner of a small Gresham insurance agency called Majestic Eagle.

On Wednesday, Dec. 6, Wilson is hustling around the Fred Meyer front entrance, his Santa Claus hat bobbing up and down as he answers urgent questions on his cell phone, stopping now and then to smile at a child or hug an old friend.

What Wilson and his seven-member board accomplish every year, for 15 years now, is something that has taken on its own momentum. Children - 214 served this year from 53 high poverty schools - are given a Fred Meyer gift card ranging from $100 to $450, depending on how many family members they have.

The elementary children are paired with volunteer personal shoppers and navigate their way through the crowded store, plucking tennis shoes off the shelf for a brother, a doll for a sister, a pair of slippers for themselves.

This year, children from Centennial and Reynolds school districts were nominated by their teachers based on need and family circumstance.

Linzey Oulman, a Butler Creek Elementary School fifth-grader, got to go shopping Wednesday for herself and her 4-year-old brother.

The store itself is a new experience for Linzey.

'There's a lot of things I like here,' she says.

Munching on a frosted cookie and walking wide-eyed through the aisles, she selects a pair of black suede rhinestone boots for herself and a pair of brown sturdy tennis shoes for her brother. The next stop is the stuffed-animal table.

Linzey circles the table twice before selecting a cheetah that she immediately names Sierra.

Heading to the clothing section, Linzey mentions that she had never had a bathrobe before. She picks out a white one with a sassy, winking cat on the back.

On the way to pick out some toy cars for her brother, she is stopped in her tracks by a display of Bratz dolls. She stands staring, transfixed, for a full two minutes, touching the boxes lightly, before turning on her heels and announcing that she is ready to go shop for her brother.

At the checkout line, her personal shopper, Majestic Eagle employee Linda Tomar of Vancouver, surprises Linzey with a Bratz doll.

Linzey's eyes shine, her mouth drops open and then curls into a huge grin as she throws her arms around Tomar and says, 'thank you.'

'That did surprise me,' Tomar said later. 'It was like, wow, that reaction is what you would hope for, but it wasn't what I expected.'

Above and beyond

Wilson, 50, lives in Happy Valley with his wife and cat and doesn't have any children.

He estimates that he and the Majestic Eagle staff spend about 300 hours throughout the year running Christmas for Kids.

And it's all over in two and a half hours of shopping madness.

Wilson admitted feeling a bit 'brain dead' afterward, but he said the spirit and positive energy of the program are a powerful motivator.

'It goes back to the very first time I took a child shopping. I never will forget it,' he said.

Wilson helped a little girl shop whose father had just passed away, and whose mother had just gone through a double mastectomy. The mother was refusing welfare.

'It really showed the need out there in the community,' Wilson said. 'It's fine and dandy to tell yourself that you know there's underprivileged people out there, and it's easy to do when you have a full belly and a warm house, but when you see it firsthand and see the impact this has for the child and the family, you know, it's only one day, but it's an impact.'

The little girl had $60 on her Fred Meyer gift card, and when Wilson rolled into the checkout aisle, he had filled four carts with clothing and toys for the girl and her siblings.

'I ended up spending well over $400,' he said. 'And there were people Wednesday that went from $600 to $800 over. All total, our shoppers spent $14,500 over and above the children's budgets.'

Gaining momentum

The project was conceived in 1991 by the former Portland Life Underwriters Association, as a Coats for Kids program. That first year, a group took about 15 children to a downtown department store and bought them coats.

Wilson got involved soon after, and in 1993, the program moved to the Hollywood Fred Meyer. Three years ago, Wilson took over the venture and formed a non-profit.

Christmas for Kids was re-born, and Wilson, who had no fund-raising experience, set about wooing major corporate sponsors. A video that tells the story, produced for free by a Columbia Sportswear employee, became instrumental in nudging large businesses into opening their checkbooks.

Another selling point is the organization's low overhead. Because Wilson does most of the fund-raising, 96 percent of the money donated goes directly to the children's shopping trips.

This year was the best year yet for Christmas for Kids, with a donation total of $110,000.

Columbia Sportswear donated brand new coats, hoodies and socks to every child. The Tigard Police Department and the Clackamas County Sheriff's patrol donated a giant pile of stuffed animals. The Oregon Dental Society donated toothbrush kits. The Trail Blazers donated 200 game tickets. Fred Meyer donated 20 percent of all the final purchases, $3,000 in food coupons, and cookies, juice and candy canes for the finale - a picture on Santa's lap.

Wilson said it's the personal experience of coming face to face with needy children that tugs at the heartstrings, and purse strings, of the personal shoppers.

'It's hard to say no to these kids,' he said. 'When they're putting back a toy for themselves and asking to get food for their mom and dad, or they want to get cleaning supplies because they know their mom doesn't have any, it's hard to say no.'