Alex Gramling says a “Christmas miracle” inspired him to found an all-volunteer organization that in three years has provided more than 1,500 Christmas trees, stands, and ornaments to needy families in four states.
The miracle began in December 2010 when Gramling, a marketing executive who lives in Newburyport, Mass., discovered an artificial Christmas tree stored in his basement. His family no longer used it, so he listed it on a local website devoted to recycling.
To Gramling’s surprise, the tree was claimed by a woman who explained that because she was going through financial difficulties, she couldn’t afford a Christmas tree that year. When she picked it up, she brought along her two children, who were excited by the good fortune they had happened upon.
“I never expected someone to claim it out of need,” says Gramling. “It completely changed my perspective and showed me the value of a Christmas tree. We were in the middle of a recession, and I figured there were hundreds or even thousands of families who needed Christmas trees. I decided right then and there that this was a problem I was going to take on.”
In early 2011, Gramling founded Christmas Tree Santas with the single mission of spreading “holiday hope and joy by giving Christmas trees to families in need.” Two business colleagues based in Gramling’s hometown of Atlanta, Bob Bailey and Ted Justiss, joined him as board members.
Christmas Tree Santas purchases live Fraser fir trees between five and seven feet high from a wholesaler in Canada. The group relies on the Salvation Army and a network of smaller social service agencies to identify families in need of trees. The agencies provide families with Christmas tree vouchers and information on where and when the Christmas Tree Santas giveaway will take place.
Giveaway day, whether held in a church or school parking lot or at a farm, is always a festive affair. Santa Claus is usually present, and large numbers of volunteers from the community show up to distribute trees, stands and ornaments, to help place trees in or on cars, and to make merry with recipient families.
“It’s like a big, one-day Christmas party,” says Gramling. “Everybody gets into the spirit of the occasion, and the kids are always very excited to see the trees they get to take home.”
In its first year, Christmas Tree Santas held giveaways in Newburyport and Atlanta. In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy struck, Bailey—a New Jersey native—suggested doing something to help victims, and a Newark giveaway was launched. This year, the group expanded to its fourth state by holding a giveaway in Charlotte, N.C.
Christmas Tree Santas raises funds directly in the community, at its website, and from a growing network of social media supporters at Facebook and Twitter. It has also received generous in-kind contributions from corporations such as Jack-Post, which has donated more than 1,000 tree stands. In addition, Gramling says hundreds of community members—individually or through churches, schools, and organizations such as the Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts—have volunteered by assisting with tree giveaways, making ornaments and donating lights.
“It’s a humbling experience,” says Gramling. “None of it would be possible without our volunteers and donors—and especially the agencies who refer families to us. And it’s personally rewarding. I’m a parent. I think about the experience of my own family at Christmas. To be able to give even a small part of that experience to other families is heartwarming.”