COLUMBIA — With volunteers on the sidewalk unloading dolly after dolly of green and red wrapped boxes, Lena Kiessling sits inside the glass doors of Trinity Presbyterian Church, handing out Hershey’s Kisses and sporting a tall, springy Christmas tree hat.
As check-in coordinator, Kiessling crosses off families and sponsors as loads of gifts come through the door.
In its 24th year, the Voluntary Action Center’s Christmas family adoption program was collecting donations Tuesday from sponsors in the Columbia area for families in need. Kiessling has been on the front lines as long as anyone.
“About 15 years ago, I lost my son and I needed something to divert my attention where I could help others in need,” Kiessling says. “It’s just so nice to be able to do things like this during this time of year.”
Cindy Mustard, executive director of the Voluntary Action Center, said 1,213 families have been sponsored this holiday season. Families apply for the program in the fall, and the center matches each family with an organization or individual by Thanksgiving.
“A lot of businesses recognize that this is a way to celebrate the holidays,” Mustard said.
Sponsors purchase the gifts on Christmas wish lists the families fill out.
MU graduate student Laura Piper is volunteering for the second year, but this is her fourth Christmas to adopt a family with her boyfriend. Instead of spending money on each other for the holidays, they choose to help someone else.
“It also gives me a break on figuring out a gift for him,” Piper said with a laugh.
The Voluntary Action Center has had to split the family adoption event into two weeks this year because of the large number of families. The second day of taking donations this week has the rooms filled nearly floor to ceiling.
“It’s completely overwhelming to see what we do in two days and bring into all of these rooms and then thinking that in two days, it will all be cleared out,” Piper said.
The sponsored families will pick up their gifts on Thursday. Many of the families do not expect to receive all they do.
“They come to pick up the gifts, and we keep bringing out gifts,” Piper said. “You give them one and then say, ‘Wait, I have five more packages to give you.’ People are very grateful.”
Marie Hunter walked through the church doors on West Rollins Road holding a number of boxes. She was followed by her 6-year-old son, Robert, who was wheeling in a bike just a little smaller than him.
Hunter and her husband have taken part in the program since they were married in 1996. “It’s a family tradition,” Hunter said.
She praises the Voluntary Action Center and says the program is a great opportunity to help in the community during this “season of giving.” Hunter also likes that the Voluntary Action Center pairs her family with a family that has a child about the same age as Robert.
“That’s another nice connection,” Hunter said. “I know what that little boy must feel like because he’s probably interested in the same things as our little boy. So that makes it even more important for me.”