Cleta Null is the CEO of Christmas Present.
If that sounds like a play on words, I have to tell you, Charles Dickens’ transformation of Scrooge was like a whisper compared to the whirlwind of giving that takes place in the Pacific community each Christmas.
Cleta is organizer of the Adopt-a-Family program, which crisscrosses the needs of struggling families with the age-old desire to do something special for Christmas tied together like Jacob’s dream of a ladder reaching to heaven. It all holds together, one knot at a time.
Cleta has set up a program, now 20 years old that collects, assembles and redistributes thousands of presents for specific families in a two-month period. And every piece is individually wrapped.
She is the promoter, revenue generator, buyer, warehouser, assembler, gift wrapper and deliverer of many Christmases that might never have been.
Here’s how it works. All year schoolchildren and civic groups hold fundraisers, collecting money to buttress the store of clothing and gifts that pile up in the basement of Cleta’s snug home on Highway 100.
At this point, it’s unknown how many struggling families will apply for a Christmas basket of clothing, gifts and food this year. Last year, the group provided Christmas for 673 families, including 2,400 children and 100 senior citizens.
Donated diapers, strollers and cars seats that exceeded the needs of families were donated to Pregnancy Assistance. They also gave out 200 bicycles, one to every child who asked for one on their list. Any extra bicycles were given to the Backpackers program.
Agape House Food Pantry, the Meramec Valley School District and local churches help Cleta identify and qualify families that might need an extra package under their tree each year. Applications are sorted to identify the number of adults, and number, age and gender of children. Each one will receive one item of clothing, one gift and a complete Christmas dinner.
The children each receive socks, underwear, a new outfit and a warm coat. If they have identified a gift they particularly want, she makes note of it. She considers this list the orders for her annual business.
This program concludes in a rush of deliveries in family cars, trucks and SUVs that lasts a full week — this is the week Cleta said that people feel the greatest need for Santa Claus, the mythical giver of magical presents.
It’s not about charity, she says, it’s about the health of community sharing — a custom that is older than both the conversion of Scrooge and Santa Claus, which were invented to demonstrate the elegance of giving.
Where does she get the stuff to help all these families? She’s a heck of a salesman and promoter of her program. Did I mention that earlier?
Wal-Mart gives her every package of socks or underwear that has been opened in the store or returned and every bicycle that has been returned. They give her children’s clothing, including girls holiday dresses of red satin and lace collars. But this is just a fraction of what she needs to fill all those orders.
If you walked into Cleta’s basement while all this is going on you might think it looked like a resale business in high gear. Items are piled against three sides of the wall, from the floor to eye level. Boxes are labeled in handwritten notes. Volunteers are inspecting the gifts, especially the electronic items, to make sure they are new and that they work and have batteries if needed.
Now she looks at her list and the revenue needed to buy the remaining items needed. Churches, civic organizations, schoolchildren and individuals contribute to this program. She buys the items that have not been donated.
After all this inventory comes into her home, a faithful corps of volunteers sort it by size and gender. Toys and other gifts are sorted by category. Now comes the task of filling the orders for each family.
One at a time, a volunteer takes a plastic bag — not the traditional Christmas basket of lore, which wouldn’t hold all the items anyway. The volunteer takes the order describing one family, goes to the stockpile and selects the items that are on the list. If something can’t be found and funds are available, Cleta goes out and buys what the child wants.
The bags then move to the packing area where another group of volunteers gift wrap each item, put a gift tag on it with the family member’s name and place each item back in the bag.
Getting the things to each family requires another set of logistics. Some packages are taken to the Community School gym where families can pick them up on a certain day. Others are taken to the churches that provided the names where, often, they are delivered to the family’s door.
Every year, at the last minute, someone calls Cleta to tell her of another family.
“I don’t turn anyone away,” she said. Cleta fills the order herself and calls the individual who contacted her to pick it up at her house.
“Everybody gets all new stuff now,” she said. “When we first started we collected used clothing and stuffed animals — just so they would have something under their tree. But now it’s all new.”
Somehow the community gets wind that all this is going on at Cleta’s home.
“Some people show up at her door and say ‘Just give me one family and I’ll buy all the items for that family,’ ” she said. “They always return with all the clothes and toys on the list. I’m never disappointed.”
The Pacific Agape house provides all the food for these Christmas dinners, plus, when they have enough, a week’s worth of groceries.
Did I mention that Cleta did not have the background of a corporate mover and shaker. Instead, she had a really good life and wants to give something to the community.
If you have a hankering to help, Cleta says she needs new clothing, toys, gifts for infants, preschoolers, school-aged children and teens.
“Cash donations are always needed and put to good use,” she said.
For more information, or to make a contribution, contact Cleta Null, 636-742-2244, Debbie Kelley, 636-675-0444, or Brenda McDaniel, 636-271-5315.
Pauline Masson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 314-805-9800.