To help spread holiday cheer, American Legion Auxiliary units and departments are once again gearing up for the annual Christmas Gift Shop season.
A decades-old tradition in the ALA, the holiday stores typically are set up at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care facilities and state veterans homes to give veterans a chance to get holiday gifts — for free — to give to family members.
Gift items include clothing, small electronics, slow cookers, mixers, toasters, games for adults and children, basketballs, volleyballs, and more. Once gifts are at the facility, the store is typically set up for one to four days. Presents are also gift-wrapped for the veterans. A couple of ALA units even make drawstring bags for weirdly shaped items. It is a full shopping experience!
Those who can come and visit the shop pick out a gift for their family members. For veterans who can’t physically make it from their floor in the VA facility, the ALA brings the shopping to them so they can still participate and pick out presents.
The idea of Christmas Gift Shops first came about when veterans used to be in the hospital for weeks on end and could be hospitalized over Christmas. The gift shops were the only way for them to shop. Nowadays, veterans may be in the hospital for only a couple of days — so the dynamic has changed — but the shops are still just as important.
Here’s a closer look at a few ALA Christmas Gift Shops from around the country:
“I think [Christmas Gift Shops] really raise the visibility of how our organization is there for our veterans, especially in times of need,” said Barbara Washburn, Department of Nebraska.
She has been helping for about 10 years in various roles at the annual gift shop at the Omaha, Neb., VA. It’s personal for her.
“My mom was very focused on helping with the gift shop,” she said. “She was active before she passed.”
Now, Washburn instills that love in her unit. Meeting veterans and getting to talk to them and hear their stories are all heartwarming benefits from being part of this activity.
“I encourage people to go once because once you go, you are hooked,” Washburn said. “Helping veterans pick a gift when they don’t think they are going to be able to afford one is serving veterans.”
To get in the spirit, Washburn and other ALA members wear Christmas sweaters, Santa hats, reindeer antler headbands, and refuel throughout the day with Christmas cookies.
After identifying where veterans are located in the VA hospital, ALA members go from floor to floor with a large cart that includes a sampling of items on it. Members introduce themselves as the Auxiliary and let the veterans know they can pick items for themselves and/or family members. The items then are wrapped and delivered back to the veteran’s room.
Veterans from the infusion clinic or dialysis unit and rehabilitation group can come to the gift room and pick out items as well. They often have an ALA member walk around with them and help them pick their gifts. Veterans wait while their items are gift wrapped.
2020 was different with COVID — Nebraska did not have a physical gift shop. Instead, gift cards were purchased for veterans.
Some veterans are Legionnaires and are aware of the Auxiliary, while other veterans may not know who we are. Through the Christmas Gift Shop, it gives veterans the opportunity to share their stories, and in turn, for members to share who we are, what we do, and why we matter.
“This continues our service to veterans to reach out to them,” Washburn said. “We’ve had members added from this [Christmas Gift Shop].”
Ruth Morgan has been part of the Connecticut Christmas Gift Shops program in some way for the last 30 years and the director for seven years. At this shop, one room is set up for wrapping presents, and the other two are set up like a store with different sections — men’s, women’s, children’s, teens, jewelry, toys, and more.
Connecticut has three different locations of gift shops. Like Nebraska, ALA members visit veterans with the items if they are unable to make it down to the shop — for those who can, the Auxiliary helps them do the shopping.
Morgan said seeing veterans excited to be able to give their family gifts brings back to volunteers why we do what we do.
“Veterans come and say, ‘I can’t do anything for Christmas; thank you for doing this,’” she said. “We are helping these veterans have a wonderful holiday. It [the shop] can be a long four days sometimes, but we are doing it for them.”
Before COVID, Morgan recalls a personal story of a Christmas Gift Shop experience. The cancer center patients came down to the shop. A man said he wanted to shop for himself — he needed a shirt.
“We also got him hats and scarves,” she said. “He came over and hugged me and said, ‘Thank you.’ We do it for the veterans and families.”
In Connecticut, ALA members have also delivered gifts or mailed items out of state to a veteran’s family members.
With COVID last year changing how the shops are normally held, Connecticut adapted and overcame the challenge by conducting a survey and picking out items for the veterans.
Morgan encourages ALA members to get involved with this project.
“I would tell anyone who was thinking of volunteering to do it because it will be so rewarding to help a veteran,” she said. “It will tug at your heartstrings when you know you are helping them. I love it and will continue doing it.”
Having a solid relationship with the VA facility for Christmas Gift Shops is not only important for taking care of the veterans and their families, but building strong relationships with ALA volunteers.
Morgan said their VA “is very good to us volunteers.” They give the Auxiliary lunch on the weekends from local eateries, a gift card to the VA cafeteria through the week, and even some VA staff members have helped wrap gifts.
Norma Tramm helped with Christmas Gift Shops prior to becoming department president when it became her focus for the year, and she has continued to give back to this cause for about 25 years. The Department of Minnesota serves four VA facilities and six veterans homes.
“We have the opportunity to give back to our veterans so they can feel good about Christmas,” she said.
Veterans are able to get a gift for themselves and their family members (spouse and children who live with them under 18 years old).
“We shop with them and help them pick out the gifts,” she said. “When they sign the gift tag, it’s from the veteran. That’s the best part for me. It’s more fun to give things rather than get them.”
Tramm recalls one personal story of a gift shop experience of a father and his children.
“A veteran came with his children and that was really special,” she said. “As he was picking items out, he got a duffel bag for himself and put gifts in the bag for them. They didn’t realize what was going on. It warms your heart.”
Tramm said it’s important for the ALA to be involved with the gift shops, whether members can physically be there to help or not — because monetary donations are always needed.
“It is a great project and gets people excited about the VA a little more and about the shop,” she said. “It’s wonderful when you can share stories with your members, and they can understand the programs better. Everyone can’t be there, so we have to share our stories.”
Thinking of starting an ALA Christmas Gift Shop?
First things first: Check to see if one already exists in your area.
If there isn’t one, Nebraska member Barbara Washburn suggests starting with the voluntary services department in the veterans facility you’d like to work with. They will have to be on board to provide the space to set up and the information on veterans to be served. It’s also important to work with your Auxiliary department on funding and operating the shop. Connecticut’s Morgan agrees that reaching out to the facility first to gauge interest will be beneficial in a future partnership.
Minnesota’s Tramm said hopefully that ALA department would have a representative at the VA or veterans home so they would be able to find out the needs of those veterans and advertise it to their members that they want to start this.
Minnesota started off really small. Tramm’s advice for departments is to start with just one place — one veterans home or one VA facility and grow the shops from there.
To get involved in a Christmas Gift Shop, reach out to your ALA department Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Committee.
By Sara Fowler, Staff Writer