It’s just a few days before Christmas and Cleta Null should be finished with the hustle and bustle of the season, but this Gray Summit grandma knows there will be at least one more request between now and Saturday from a parent in need of help providing holiday gifts for his or her children.
As always, “Christmas Cleta” will open her doors to helping in any way she can.
Many people around the Pacific and Gray Summit area know Null, but her reputation as one of Santa’s helpers stretches far beyond Franklin County. She’s known even into far corners of St. Louis County, where a few store managers collect unsaleable items to donate to her cause.
For the last 19 years, Null has organized the Christmas Adopt-A-Family Program in Pacific. In that time she and a team of volunteers have helped thousands of local families and tens of thousands of children wake up to a few presents under the tree and a special meal in the refrigerator.
Null, who serves on the board of the Agape House in Pacific, founded the Adopt-A-Family program there in 1992 with Bertha Stahlman, who has since passed away.
They were both volunteers at an area food pantry where the director would intermittently help people in need who came to her at Christmas.
“We thought there had to be a better way to help everyone,” said Null.
Together they devised a program that involved an application and began passing them out at all of the schools to send home with the children. Parents who needed some extra help that year returned their completed applications, and Null and Stahlman “adopted” them.
The ladies collected gently used toys and clothes and matched up the “wish lists” and sizes of the families in need. They wrapped the gifts, loaded them up in Null’s truck and hand delivered them to the families just before Christmas.
Back in ’92 the program helped 50 families, recalled Null. This year over 675 families submitted applications.
“Each year it grew and grew,” she said, noting the increase was gradual.
Last year the program helped 650 families, including about 2,400 children up to high school age. It also includes 120 seniors, many at Pacific Care Center, who received items like hand cream, puzzles and candy.
In the beginning the program was a supplement to a family’s Christmas, said Null, but today it has become everything. And all of the items given to families today are new, she stressed.
The basement of Null’s home is where the magic happens. She keeps all of the donated items there, sorted by size for clothes or type for toys.
Volunteers begin filling a request by taking a completed application with a child’s name, age, clothing size and wish list and labeling a large bag with the information. Then they make their way around the room pulling items to meet that child’s needs and dreams.
A poster on the wall spells out what the volunteers should include in each bag — two to three outfits, socks, underwear, hat, gloves, three to four big toys and four to five little toys.
All of the items are new, said Null, noting Wal-Mart is now her main supplier.
“I couldn’t do it without Wal-Mart,” she remarked.
Over the years, Null has cultivated relationships with managers at several Wal-Marts around the metro area. They donate end-of-season clothes or new items that can’t be sold because the packaging was damaged. She stops at the stores weekly to pick up items.
“The Wal-Mart in Pacific, which is now in Eureka, has helped me all 19 years,” said Null, smiling.
The various Wal-Mart stores also donate the damaged or returned bicycles that can’t be sold. Null has a volunteer, Roger Collins, who repairs the like-new bikes and she passes them on to local children who have asked for bikes for Christmas or who earned them as a reward.
Even with all of the items from Wal-Mart, it’s not enough to meet the need, so Null also welcomes help from anyone willing to provide it.
“I watch for sales, I work with Toys for Tots, Mattel, St. Albans, people come by and leave stuff on my porch,” she said.
There are several churches that take as many as half of the names to fulfill on their own, said Null. Others help by volunteering to wrap the items.
Many people all around the community also support the program with donations.
Null networks with other Adopt-A-Family programs at local nonprofits like the Pregnancy Assistance Center and Loving Hearts Outreach, both in Washington, to ensure that her applicants are not “working the system” by trying to receive help from more than one program.
She said her volunteers try to fill children’s wish lists as much as possible. Occasionally they have gone out to purchase a specific toy for a child, but very often they have something similar in their donated supplies.
‘It Was Payback Time’
“I said it was payback time because God had been so good to me,” said Null.
She was blessed from the beginning as one of 14 children born to good parents. She was lucky enough to find love early and marry young, but she was widowed young too when her husband was killed in an accident.
Null enrolled in classes at the University of Missouri-St. Louis for a degree in psychology. She had a vision of working as a social worker or a similar career, helping children of divorced families, but found that wasn’t a good fit for her.
“I couldn’t find what I wanted,” said Null. “I had three kids, all grown, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
She was searching for something when the idea to start Adopt-A-Family came to her.
“I was called to do it,” she said.
“. . . it was payback time,” she said again. “God gave me good parents, a good husband, good kids . . . I think we need to pay back some of that good. We can’t always just take.”
Null delays her Christmas celebration with her children and grandchildren until early January to make sure she is able to help any last-minute parents in need.
“I had a young woman come on Christmas Eve one year because the people who were supposed to help her didn’t,” said Null. “I told her she was welcome to whatever was left.”
Null noted that her children, two of whom live out of state, sometimes get a little frustrated with her commitment to the program, placing it before their family Christmas, but she refuses to change her ways.
“I like to be here until the end,” she remarked.
Null, who is 77, knows that she can’t go on forever but says she plans to lead the Adopt-A-Family program as long as possible.
“I hope I die doing this,” she said. “I really love what I do. It’s a challenge to me.
“We really do help a lot of people and it makes me feel good.
“It’s become the love of my life,” she said, matter-of-factly.
A couple of volunteers who were filling Christmas requests at Null’s house shuddered at the thought of her not being there to organize the program.
“I don’t know what we would do without her,” said one.
None were eager to take over.
“We would need this house,” said another, noting the set-up at Null’s has been fine-tuned to perfection.
All of the volunteers agreed they can’t imagine not being involved in the program. It’s just that rewarding for them.
“It’s more fun coming here than going anywhere else,” said Patricia Sewell, Gray Summit, who has volunteered with the program on and off for four years.
Jackie Hopping, a volunteer from Washington, said she likes to help families who are not so well off each year because she was one of them as a child.
“It’s just not Christmas without Cleta,” said Martha Cooley, a volunteer from Catawissa. “You know that’s her email — ‘Christmas Cleta.’ ”