Holiday helper tree helps students give back

Nadia Dreid

For 21 years, the holiday helper tree has graced the halls of Georgia Southern during the second half of fall semester.

This year it stands in the Russell Union, and it looks like any other Christmas tree, except instead of shining glass bulbs, it’s decorated with brightly colored construction paper tags – 856 tags, to be exact.

On each tag is the age and gender of a person in need and what they would like for the holiday season. People can pick a tag off the tree and bring back the gift listed on the chosen tag.

Eileen Smith, senior administrative assistant for the sociology and anthropology department, came up with idea in the fall of 1994 after being given a list of 100 needy families from the department of family and children services. She got the idea from the “angel trees” that are popular in churches, which operate in much the same way.

“It was a hit,” Smith said. “Within the first three years, we doubled what we had been doing for people.”

In recent years, the program has been able to help as many as 1,000 people in the area, Smith said. Now, 15 agencies from across the county are involved, providing names for the tree and distributing the gifts to their clients.

Amber Carter is a civic engagement student assistant helping to manage the project and has had the opportunity to view all the gift requests. They are surprisingly thoughtful, she said.

“Someone wanted a fake diamond ring, that was one of my favorite gifts. And this year, the gift I chose to give was the Garth Brooks all-time hits CD,” Carter said. “You can tell these are things that they really want. It might not be a really expensive thing, but it’s something that they want.”

Others gift requests are more about need.

“You see some things come through, like children asking for jackets for cool weather or a family asking for blankets, sort of things that people of a more affluent place in life take for granted,” Carter said. “That there’s always going to be a blanket in my closet when I go to find one, but that may not be the case for some other folks in the Bulloch County community.”

For Smith, the most rewarding part of starting the project was when she had the opportunity to see the people benefiting from the gifts provided by the GSU community.

“If you’ve ever seen the looks on those children’s faces; it’s amazing to watch,” Smith said.

The project had no problem filling the 140 volunteer spots they needed this year, with many students signing up for multiple volunteer spots. Participating in the holiday helper project is also rewarding for the person buying the gift, as well as those volunteering to help things go smoothly, according to Carter.

“You are helping someone who is less fortunate than you. It speaks mounds to your character and what you value, and it’s just a really, really great thing to do as we start to get into the holiday season,” Carter said.

Smith said she encourages students, staff and faculty alike to make time to look at the tree and pick a tag that fits their budget. Many students choose several tags to take home for Thanksgiving break and make it a family project or something they do with the brothers and sisters in their fraternity or sorority.

Their goal is to make sure all 856 people on the tree have a gift this holiday season.

Carter said, “It’s all bigger than us. It’s all about how we have come together to make something happen.”

The holiday helper tree will be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. until Friday, Nov. 21. Gifts must be returned wrapped and with their holiday helper tag to the Office of Student Leadership and Civic Engagement by Tuesday, Dec. 2.