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The Early Years
The first mention of what is now Christmas Unlimited was in the December 16, 1923 edition of the Gazette Telegraph. The article started with a verse presumably written by the author:
“Givers and getters and old St. Nick letters,
And all the Christmastide causes;
Here’s to the painters, the stitchers, repairers,
The women who play Santa Clauses.”
The article reports that in a loft at the Newton Lumber Yard a group of Santa-minded citizens is repairing dolls, putting puzzles together and painting various donated items. They conduct this beehive of activity under the auspices of the Mrs. Santa Claus Club. Mrs. Russell Law is putting puzzles together. Painting sleds are Mrs. Robert Sims, Mrs. Edward Honnen and Mrs. J.A. Wenk. Mrs. Frank Perkins, Mrs. Philip Nelson and Mrs. Walter Wilson “perform surgical operations on injured dolls.” Mrs. Ripley and daughter Dorothy put clothes on them.
Four Columbia “schoolboys”, Forest Smith, Mervin Zigler, Richard Burt and Daniel Santry are repairing wagons. Mrs. Walter Druehl, Mrs. Joseph Caldwell and Mrs. Porterfield repair picture books. Handling the collection of donations and discovering families needing help are Mrs. W.M. Wilson, Mrs. Marta Pribble, Mrs. Philip Nelson, Mrs. Herbert Lennox and Mrs. Floyd Padget.
These pioneers in volunteerism set in motion a community consciousness that survives today as Christmas Unlimited. While there are significant gaps in the organization’s historic archives, it is remarkable how little has changed philosophically from those early days when 300 to 1,000 children were served annually. And, there have been some difficult times.
The project outgrew the Newton Lumber Yard attic and moved to the basement of the downtown YMCA. Mrs. John Bennet guided Mrs. Santa Claus Club for sixteen years in the forties and fifties. During this time the program provided clothes and food in addition to toys. In the early 1970's they changed the name to Christmas Unlimited and in the mid-eighties moved into the basement of a building on Bott Avenue where toys, clothes and food were collected, cleaned, repaired and distributed. Recounting this “era” an early volunteer remembered “the families would step up to the counter and would list what they wanted. Taking a box with us, we would try to find the items they asked for.” During these years the number of children served each year grew to between 3,000 and 4,000.
In 1987 president Emil Garnett announced in the Gazette that Christmas Unlimited was on the verge of closing its doors -- too few volunteers and too much work. Emil, his wife, and the Mary Garrison family were Christmas Unlimited. Mickie Shepard, a local businessperson, responded to the Gazette article and stepped forward to take the reigns of the struggling group. Calling upon friends and family, she worked diligently to restructure the organization and develop a five-year plan. It was during this time the “store” concept of distributing the toys was developed, giving clients an opportunity to choose what they wanted using a point voucher system.
Ann Byrum, retired manger of the Chapel Hills Mall Sears store, was recruited and in 1988 the Mall donated nearly 3,000 sq. ft. to Christmas Unlimited. Ann, the first female store manager in the history of Sears, set up shop to clean, repair and distribute toys. A core group of volunteers led by Robin Hunt, Marge Sullivan, Dorothy Cook, Carol Pertl, Peggy Palsgrove, Charlotte Kindt, LaDonna and Dick Palm saw to it toys were cleaned and sorted. Due to health concerns Ann left the organization in 1993. LaDonna stepped into the Store Managers’ role, assisted by husband Dick.
By this time Mickie had passed the presidential reigns to local attorney, David Miller Jr. His vision for the organization inspired substantial growth and the hiring of the group’s first staff person, executive director Susan Jenkins.
In 1990 Christmas Unlimited changed the way clients were screened and notified. Applications were distributed to human service agencies who in turn gave them to their clients. The response was unexpected and dramatic. More clients than every before were served in December of 1990. In early 1991 Christmas Unlimited was, by normal business standards, bankrupt. Commented then president Bob Tretheway, “that season we were almost to the point of spray painting cardboard boxes and calling them doll houses.” The new application distribution method caused a nearly 30% increase in children served.
In search of regular cash flow to dig the organization out of debt the volunteers turned to bingo. For the next two and half years every Tuesday night was “Bingo Night”. It was during this time that Christmas Unlimited lost the Bott Street Basement due to the expansion of the landlord’s business. Chapel Hills Mall to the rescue! An entire 5,600 sq. ft. of unfinished space was donated.
What to do for lights, water and sprinklers? G.E. Johnson Construction encouraged Blazer Electric Supply and Riviera Electric to pitch in. Larry Ferguson of MFP Fire Protection donated a sprinkler system, and Mike McCarthy did the plumbing. With financial support from Rampart Range Sertoma, and lots of hard work by volunteers, the place was ready in about a month. It was home for the next two seasons.
As Chapel Hills Mall became more successful the 5,600 sq. ft. shrank to the current 1,700 sq. ft. which is used for the refurbishing of gently used toys. The Mall also donates eight self-store units to warehouse toys and supplies.
Too Much Success?
Throughout its history Christmas Unlimited had a “flow through” system for the collection and distribution of toys. Everything that came in went out the same season. The scare of December 1991 caused the board to think in terms of building financial stability by collecting more toys than would be distributed each year. Greater emphasis was placed on developing toy drives. In 1997 Sandy Aldrich came on board as the Toy Drive Coordinator. Under her direction the number of corporate drives increased dramatically. Bob Tretheway, now the organization’s administrator, helped grow the three largest toy collection projects: the HOGS Toy Run, KRDO’s Santa’s Toy Drive and KKTV’s Toy Drive.
This goal of collecting and warehousing the majority of toys needed a year in advance of distribution was achieved in 2000. This has allowed Christmas Unlimited to serve more families in a more comfortable fashion and giving them more toys. Additionally, a dramatic turn around has been effected. Prior to the early-nineties 70% of the toys distributed were used. This past season 82% of the toys given to families were new and the balance were carefully selected and refurbished toys.
Having $400,000 worth of toys a year in advance has created the need for about 6,000 sq. ft of warehouse space. Along with space for an electronics workshop, a bicycle repair shop, sorting and washing toys and office space, Christmas Unlimited needs a minimum of 7,000 sq. ft. of space for its operation.
Thus the dilemma, create financial stability in order to better serve the community — and — create a dependency on warehouse space.
To further complicate the situation, Christmas Unlimited volunteers have been quick to adopt struggling programs they felt met their goal of helping families in need. In 1995 Shirley Crouch approached the organization for help with her Christmas Is For Sharing program. For a number of years Shirley distributed gifts to children in protective environments throughout southern Colorado. Since then Christmas Unlimited has been instrumental in the success of Christmas Is For Sharing by providing toys and wrapping paper.
In 1996 Christmas Unlimited, in cooperation with Help The Needy, established a holiday toy distribution center in Woodland Park. Hosted by Our Lady of the Woods Church, this project was responsible for nearly doubling the number of families served in Teller county each holiday season. In 2005 the project ended due to a lack of space for distribution.
Cards For Kids, started by residents of the Fountain Valley Senior Center and adopted by Christmas Unlimited in 1996, is a program where sports cards are collected and packaged in small sets. The packages are used by youth leaders as incentives for a variety of programs. Recipients have been the Emily Griffith Center, Chins Up and the Pikes Peak Boy Scout Council.
Prescription Plush was established in 1998. Through this program stuffed animals, which are specially cleaned, sanitized, and sealed in plastic bags, are distributed to senior care facilities.
In 2000 Christmas Unlimited started working with the Pueblo Goodwill for both a toy distribution program and Operation Back To School. The Fremont County Family Center has approached Christmas Unlimited and hopes of establishing a toy and school supply distribution programs to serve their community.
Operation Back To School was adopted in 1997. This program gives school supplies to needy children and is dealt with in more detail in another section of the website.
On the drawing board is the Birthday Buddy program. The concept is to have the Christmas Unlimited toy distribution center open year-round. Vouchers will be distributed through area human service agencies and families in need will be able to select a new toy for their child’s birthday.
From 1991 to October of 2001 Christmas Unlimited relocated some part of its operation every year. Different workshop and warehouse spaces moved twelve times, the office moved nine times and the Distribution Center moved six times. During that time the operation was located at Chapel Hills Mall, at the Satellite Hotel, at the Community Health Center, in rented semi-trailers, in an old K-Mart, at the Youth Outreach Center, Rocky Mountain Clutch and in eleven self-store units.
On October 16, 2002 Christmas Unlimited, after wandering the non-profit desert for seventy-seven years, moved into a warehouse located at 2204 E. Boulder. It is the first time that the warehouse, office and distribution center is under one roof. The refurbishing of toys is done in space donated by Chapel Hills Mall.
Volunteers and service club partners managed to raise a $100,000 down payment. The next challenge is to raise an additional $400,000 to pay off the building.
Throughout The Years
Throughout the years Christmas Unlimited has had thousands of volunteers, many having dedicated a significant part of their lives to the organization’s success. Tens of thousands of parents, grandparents, foster parents and children have benefited from the simple idea of “neighbors helping neighbors.”
Eschewing the entanglements of an umbrella fund-raising alliance, Christmas Unlimited has remained staunchly independent and in charge of its own destiny. There have been golden years and times of extreme difficulty — and always the organization finds leadership, support and inspiration to forge ahead with its mission of serving the Pikes Peak region. Since 1923 Christmas Unlimited has been:
“Helping children believe in the magic of Christmas,
and adults in the kindness of the human spirit.”