by Anika Rychner
Director of Self-Sufficiency

A four-year-old girl jumped into the arms of 360 Communities’ Sophia Bond and squeezed her tight after she gave her a new winter coat.  When the little girl arrived at Armful of Love with her mother in the minus 10-degree weather to pick up their gifts, Sophia quickly noticed that the girl was wearing no less than four sweatshirts to keep warm. She immediately picked out a donated coat and put it on the little girl. While this wasn’t that special toy a child wants this time of year, this coat was something special this girl needed – a gift that many of us take for granted.

Ask anyone who volunteered at the 360 Communities Armful of Love holiday gift program this year, there were plenty of stories of families who were moved to tears by the generosity of their sponsors.  One mother drove away with her car filled with presents for her children.  After driving a few miles, she turned the car around and came back.  With tears streaming down her cheeks, she hugged the volunteers and thanked them profusely for helping her give her children the best Christmas they had ever had.  The kindness and compassion shown to recipient families go far beyond gifts.  Creating a joyful, safe and dignified experience for families builds trust.  And we saw that trust in action several times, as individuals in their program-qualifying interviews disclosed greater challenges such as domestic and sexual violence and were connected with our experts from the Lewis House.

This year 360 Communities Armful of Love volunteers were able to match 1,001 families in need. That’s 4,100 individuals, 2,600 of whom are children.  We matched these families with over 400 sponsors, from faith communities, to businesses, to families, to individuals.  They shopped, wrapped, and delivered their gifts to our donated warehouse space in Burnsville.  This was the third year in a row that ShopJimmy and MN Home Outlet owner, Jimmy Vosika, generously donated the over 12,000 square feet of warehouse space necessary to store and distribute gifts for 1,000 families.  We also received more than $12,000 in cash sponsorships from the community to support the cost of operating the program.

Armful of Love takes many helping hands.  Over 325 volunteers gave their time to interview families, match them with sponsors, set up the warehouse and receive and distribute gifts.  Volunteering to distribute gifts at Armful of Love has become a meaningful and fun holiday tradition for many businesses, including Thomson Reuters, Pepsico, and Uponor, as well as Rotary clubs and local police departments.  It has also become a family tradition for several local families who want to spend time together giving back.

New this year, thanks to the generosity of Costco, we were able to distribute winter coats during gift distribution.  When Burnsville Costco employees noticed a surplus of winter coats in their stores, their store manager allowed them to purchase them at cost and donate them.  360 Communities received approximately 100 coats that we were able to distribute, many to individuals who arrived at Armful of Love to pick up their gifts without a coat to their name.

Armful of Love is much more than presents.  It is an opportunity for the community to support the community, help families in need feel hopeful and loved, and to spread the joy that the season is all about.  Armful of Love Coordinator Sue Lewis reflected on the impact that the program has on anyone who contributes.

“It’s amazing to see what volunteers and generous community members can accomplish.  Over and over I witnessed volunteers going above and beyond, moved to contribute more time or extra gifts when they heard the stories of family hardships.”  Above all, she knows that the culture created by those volunteers and sponsors is what makes Armful of Love unique.  Sue deserves a special thank you for her leadership and hard work in coordinating Armful of Love, and creating a culture focused on serving people “in the spirit of caring.”

“In the spirit of caring for our neighbors” leads off the 360 Communities mission and drives all of the critical work our staff and volunteers do to prevent violence, ensure school success, and promote long-term self-sufficiency.  Armful of Love has finished for 2016, but there are still many ways you can make an impact in your community through 360 Communities.  Consider giving a tax-deductible year-end contribution to 360 Communities and/or volunteering.

If you have never donated to 360 Communities, now is a great time to start. The Otto Bremer Trust has awarded 360 Communities a grant that will match new donations, dollar for dollar, up to $45,000. You can donate here. Before you leave the website, make sure to read or watch more stories about the hope and support we are able to provide with the community’s generosity and support.

All the best holiday wishes to you and your family.