Many Cleveland County residents never perused an etsy shop this holiday season. They never anticipated the arrival of their gifts through Amazon two-day delivery. They never stepped foot in a big box store.
For hundreds of people throughout Norman, the sole provider of their holiday gifts was the Cleveland County Christmas Store, a community project that’s helped low-income families in providing food, toys and household goods free of charge for more than 40 years. Thanks to the generosity of folks throughout the University of Oklahoma and Cleveland County communities, those shoppers can get that same gratification of picking out a gift that’s perfect for their loved one.
“Shopping day is when you get to see the real impact of what our store does,” said Charles Hollingsworth, chairman at the Cleveland County Christmas Store. Hollingsworth has the privilege of seeing the shoppers make their selections year after year. He’s seen many instances in which families return to the Christmas store to share their gratitude through donations and volunteering their time.
Just this year, Hollingsworth recalled a small boy who visited the Christmas store exclaiming to him, “This is toy land!” as he explored the toys.
Hollingsworth said families realize while shopping how blessed they are to be a part of something that not only benefits their family, but many other families as well. Many reiterate to him something he already knows: that without the Christmas store, there would be no presents underneath the tree come Christmas morning.
Qualifying Cleveland County residents apply for the opportunity to shop at the store. If they do qualify, they’re asked to work two hours at the store. And, after completing their volunteer hours, they’re able to get everything from toys for their children to groceries for their holiday dinner. Christmas store departments include toddlers through teenagers, seniors, household and grocery.
Donations from Cleveland County businesses and organizations pour into the store in the weeks leading up to Christmas. In fact, each year, departments across the University of Oklahoma’s Norman campus participate in the Fill the Trolley campaign, orchestrated by OU Parking Services. The campaign tasks individual departments with organizing their own toy, food and household item drives. After a few weeks of collecting items, Santa and his elves (also known as Roy Bendure of Cleveland Area Rapid Transit and his sidekicks) visit each department to collect the toys and load them up on the trolley to be taken to the Christmas store.
If the Fill the Trolley campaign were a competition, it’s safe to say Monnet Hall would be the reigning champ. Last year, the building donated 17 bicycles.
“Everyone in the building pulls together,” said Kay Blunck, an accounts specialist at Monnet Hall. Blunck mentioned her co-workers’ gratitude for the Academy in Norman, which helps them each year in donating the bikes. “Everyone remembers their first bike, and everyone should have that opportunity.”
Other departments such as the K20 Center have made it a goal to have every employee donate a toy. It’s generosity like that that makes the trolley’s dropoffs at the Cleveland County Christmas Store more like a celebration.
“When the trolley arrives at the store, it is a big event,” Hollingsworth said.
One thing everyone seems to love about OU’s Fill the Trolley event is the big man himself. Holland said each department’s employees love to crowd around the jolly old man when he walks into the office to take pictures. The campus-wide tradition seems to bring the 7-year-old kid out in everyone.
Bendure explained that each year he gets a warm feeling from seeing all the departments respond so overwhelmingly. He said he enjoys getting into the mindset of the jocular Mr. Claus each year.
“Nobody knows who I am, so I can crack jokes in the suit,” Bendure said. “I enjoy making people laugh.”
The Cleveland County Christmas Store was launched in 1970 by Action, Inc., a non-profit organization funded both federally and locally to bring about more effective community social programs. Now, the Christmas store is overseen by a board of community volunteers and is locally funded.
“(The store is) able to provide hope to the families when no one else is knocking on their doors to help,” Hollingsworth said.
The Cleveland County Christmas Store is located at 641 E. Robinson Street in Norman. Learn more at the store’s website.