For 19 years, Ginny Ramsey has been soliciting gently used items for the Faith & Community Christmas Store she coordinates, which affords low-income families the dignity of "shopping" for gifts for their children.
Ramsey, co-founder and director of the Catholic Action Center, said two aspects of this year's event are different. One is the freedom from fielding inquiries from potential volunteers. Instead, this year, people can sign up to volunteer on the God's Net website through SignUpGenius, an online sign-up service.
And the second change is the growing number of children in Fayette County who are living in poverty.
According to the 2014 Kentucky Kids Count County Data Book, which ranks all Kentucky counties on overall child well-being, economic security, education, and health, there are more than 65,000 children ages 0-17 in Fayette County and 23 percent of them are living in poverty.
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"When I started 19 years ago, it was 12 percent," Ramsey said. "Twenty-three percent. How can that be in Lexington, Ky.?"
The parents of those children are struggling to pay utility bills that jumped when the temperatures dipped earlier than usual this season, she said. There is no way they can afford Christmas gifts.
Fortunately, this "shopping" opportunity is free and no money is exchanged. Parents simply select free gifts for their kids.
Despite the criticism Ramsey receives sometimes for serving Lexington's homeless population year-round, "nobody thinks the children shouldn't be served," Ramsey said.
For the second year, the Christmas store will be held at Southland Christian Church, Richmond Road Campus. "We have 40,000 square feet of space to set up and to have inventory inside," she said. "We have been in basements and attics. Every time we went anywhere, people complained."
Not any more. Southland has been very gracious. And with all that space, thousands of volunteers are needed and thousands usually turn out, which is why Ramsey is so grateful for the online organizer.
The store will be open from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. on Dec. 17, 18, and 19. Two of those days, however, still need volunteers for a couple of the four-hour slots. The available slots are 8 a.m. to noon on both days, and noon to 4 p.m. both days.
"We really don't have enough on Thursday morning to open the store," she said. "We really need lots of people."
Volunteers who have children are welcome to bring them along. "The children are the best sorters," Ramsey said explaining that toys are placed in age categories and the children sometimes have to correct adults, moving toys to another group.
Volunteers will be on site from 10 a.m. — 5 p.m., Dec. 12; from 10 a.m. — 3 p.m. on Dec.13; and from 10 a.m. — 6 p.m. on Dec. 15, to start transforming the space into a Winter Wonderland. No sign-ups are necessary on those days. Just show up ready to work.
If you have items you want to donate, you can take them to the west or former McAlpin's side of the building during those times. Items are especially needed for the "Teen Boutique," including sports equipment and old electronics or cell phones.
"We always need things for that area," Ramsey said. "If your grandmother gave you a gift last year that you have not used, she is not going to mind you giving it to the Christmas store. It is the best way to re-gift."
Beginning on Dec. 17, families will be given tickets stamped with the designated shopping time. There is no need to line up early or overnight. Everyone will be served, she said. Items are replenished daily. Parents can shop for four children, but the children are not allowed to come with their parents.
In the past, there have been times when the center has gotten down to the "naked Barbies," Ramsey said. "But now we have women who gather doll clothes all year and dress them before they go into the store."
And unlike previous years, people won't have to stand outside until time for their 20-minute shopping experience with a personal guide, Ramsey said because Southland is providing a hospitality waiting room with snacks. Plus, the church has collected a large number of coats, which are not a part of the store, from which the shoppers can choose something for themselves.
To get a ticket, Ramsey said, "Just come in and say I need to shop. You don't have to prove a darn thing to us."
Ramsey started the store when two other programs asked her to help the families they could not serve. She got a few things together in the basement of the Cathedral of Christ the King and helped 525 people. Now it has grown into a community event.
"The cool thing about the store, is that you can make a difference there," she said. "Even if you are living in poverty, you have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else. (As a volunteer) you can share their hopes and dreams."
Ultimately, that is the definition of community.