Alex Gramling was simply trying to make more room in his basement when he gave away his first Christmas tree five years ago. But when he saw how much the tree meant to the single mother who came to get it, it inspired him to launch a movement that is touching thousands.
Gramling, a longtime member of First Religious Society Unitarian Universalist in Newburyport, Massachusetts, is the founder of Christmas Tree Santas, a nonprofit that last year gave away 750 Christmas trees to families in need. This season the organization expects to give away at least 1,000 at sites in six states.
Remembering that first tree, Gramling said, “I was surprised by how many people wanted my old tree when I put it on Craigslist. The young mother I gave it to was just overjoyed and it became clear that to her it was more than a free tree, it was something very important to the family which had seen some tough times.”
“I thought to myself that there were a lot of agencies that help provide basic services to people in need, including food and shelter, and here was a niche, so small, that no one else was filling,” he said. “Yet it had such emotional value for families.”
And thus was born Christmas Tree Santas. Gramling contacted Christmas tree farms, created a website, and recruited volunteers. He quickly drew in his two business partners, Bob Bailey and Ted Justiss. The three provide information technology services to businesses.
Gramling also made a pitch to his congregation. “One of the first things I did was to stand up in front of the congregation and ask for support. People have been very generous with donations and by volunteering. The youth have made ornaments. We have also been the recipient of ‘donate-the-plate’ collections. That has all been very important to us.”
The organization buys trees at wholesale from tree farms, has them trucked in and distributes them to families who have been pre-approved by social service agencies that partner with Christmas Tree Santas. A list of those partners is on its website (christmastreesantas.org).
In 2011, its first year, Christmas Tree Santas gave away 300 trees at two sites, one near Newburyport, the other in Atlanta, Georgia. This year there will be giveaways at several sites in Massachusetts; Athens and Atlanta in Georgia; and Charlotte, Newark, Detroit, and Houston.
The program has developed organically, said Gramling. “In North Carolina, a minister who went to high school with my wife read about it on Facebook. We helped her organize one in Charlotte. There is one in Athens, Georgia, because we three partners all went to the university there. One of my partners has family in New Jersey, and that’s how that site came about. It’s all based on what particular volunteer or group or sponsor gets excited about the program and wants to take it on.” In Detroit, a pro football player who grew up in foster homes will provide trees to foster families.
The trees come with tree stands. The organization also encourages contributions of sets of lights and ornaments and those are given away with trees when available.
Christmas Tree Santas helps each of the sites with organizing and with obtaining trees. “Then they run it as their own,” Gramling said. “They stay true to the fundamental mission, while doing what will work best in their community.”
Gramling would love to see UU and other congregations become involved. “It’s a great church and community-building activity.” Congregations can contribute money, buy sets of lights or ornaments for the trees, make ornaments, or establish tree giveaway programs through partnerships with local social service groups, he notes. The organization can be reached through its website or at Christmas Tree Santas, 85 Lime Street, Newburyport, MA, 01950.
Gramling and his partners organize the tree program around their work schedules. “It’s a labor of love,” he said. “We squeeze it into the margins of our days, nights, and weekends. There are a lot of site logistics to work out, delivery issues, groups to coordinate with.”
He added, “Every year I say we’re at capacity and then we seem to grow in gratifying ways. Growth is not our primary mission, however. We just want to help families and build community. If one year we have ten donation sites and the next year eight, we will have done what we can do.”
He estimates it costs about $20 to give away a tree. This year Christmas Tree Santas needs to raise around $20,000. That figure will rise as the program grows. “We have no staff. Almost everything we raise goes to buy trees.”
Many people volunteer to help with the distribution every year. “It becomes an important part of their holiday celebration,” he said. “The gift is not only for the recipient, but for everyone who participates and is touched by it.”
The stories keep Gramling going. “A woman contacted us from the Boston area. When she was a single mom and having a difficult time, someone had brought her a tree. She vowed that when she could, she was going to do this for someone else. Last year we helped her give away thirty trees in her community. This year she’s doing fifty. That’s what keeps us going year after year, just hearing these amazing stories. So many special Christmas memories are tied to trees. We’ve had people walk a mile to our sites, intending to carry a tree back home. It really helps you understand how important this is to them.”