Vicki Bullock’s mother told her family she wasn’t going to put up a Christmas tree if there weren’t gifts underneath it. However, the Bullock family never had to worry about that happening, and her mom and dad made sure the tree had plenty of gifts for their five children.
That giving holiday spirit is what Bullock tries to spread at The Redeem Project, a nonprofit resource center and ministry she founded and directs that helps people hurting financially, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually through various free programs and services. It starts with a Christmas tree.
In October, the ladies in the organization’s Family Self-Sufficiency program adorn the tree with sparkling ornaments, twinkling lights and candy
canes. The laughter shared, revelry for the holiday season and happy times spent with their “second family” lessen stress they feel from their own life challenges. Bullock adds the final touch to the tree, an angel her grandmother bought when Bullock was a child.
The tree itself welcomes visitors to find peace in its serene beauty during the holiday season. But just like her mother, Bullock does not let the tree stand free without gifts underneath it.
Those presents hold special meaning to the family recipients in The Redeem Project’s annual Hope For Christmas program, which has been a part of the organization since it opened its doors in 2010.
The project was not created to assist families who need help throughout the year, but ones experiencing recent tragedies preventing them from affording or celebrating Christmas. Fellow residents generously “adopt” the families to provide them with gifts, strength and faith during the holidays. In fact, that is the reason why Bullock’s mother created the seasonal giving program’s name.
“She said this is what you are doing; you are giving hope to these families,” Bullock said. “Because of cancer, car accidents, fire or whatever the situation may be, these families have lost hope. You need to be able to give them that little bit of hope, even if it’s just on Christmas morning.”
Beginning Oct. 1, Bullock starts talking with possible recipient families referred to Hope for Christmas by doctors, churches, state agencies and others.
“If they qualify for the Samaritan Center, Salvation Army or other charitable family adoption programs in the area, we send them to them,” Bullock said. “But there are a lot of families out there that are working and have not needed assistance before, but now have a child going through cancer, for example. It has drained their budget, and Christmas is not even on their radar. Those are the types of people we help with Hope for Christmas, and they are so appreciative.”
In fact, the first Hope for Christmas family came to the organization from a doctor’s office. Bullock said they wanted to help a specific family, but didn’t know how they could help. The doctor’s office adopted the family, and with other referrals coming into the nonprofit organization, Hope for Christmas was born.
“We had a goal of 12 families that first year, and we had 25 families,” she said.
Two years ago, Hope for Christmas assisted 1,400 families, but that was when The Redeem Project serviced 36 Missouri counties. Now they serve Cole, Callaway, Osage, Moniteau and Gasconade counties. Last year, they helped more than 400 families and 64 senior citizens, referred from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, with all families and seniors only assisted once through the program. This year, organizers again hope to match those numbers.
“Families are separated by number. We try to keep everything so anonymous, especially with our families. … They are the people you sit next to at church, work next to, your kids play ball with their kids,” Bullock said. “We try to be cognizant of the fact that this is not the norm for them.”
Posted on the Hope for Christmas website and the program’s Facebook page beginning Oct. 1, the families have stories like one from this year: “Family 120: This is a mom and son. Dad died in a car accident in September. They have several medical bills on top of dealing with the unexpected death. This has been very difficult for them. The son, who is 12, loves Mizzou and KC Chiefs football and photography. He is a good student and loves reading, art and doing crafts with his mom. He could use warm clothing. Mom could use warm clothing, towels and kitchen items. She enjoys music and watching Mizzou football and KC Chiefs with her son. They also do photography together.”
Bullock said referrals come in through early November, with a few families experiencing traumatic situations as late as early December still able to receive help from the program. Typically by the end of October and early November, organizations, businesses and families begin inquiring about adopting a family.
“We have many families who have gone through something similar, want to teach their children about giving or have had someone in their office hit by cancer. We often find those families adopt families in that similar situation,” Bullock said. “We also have a donor that matches 50 percent of every donation through Dec. 8, and have two retailers that match money spent in their store.”
Bullock said shortly after Thanksgiving, volunteers wrap presents, filtering in daily to help up to the week before Christmas. Volunteers begin deliveries of gifts to families around Dec. 15.
“People just want to help others; that is the beauty of this program. … This program not only allows the families that open the packages that hope, but the people who purchase the gifts, those who deliver the gifts, those who wrap the gifts. It gives them hope, too,” she said. “They see all the smiles and get the enjoyment and the blessing out of being able to do their part.”
Over the years, Greg and Brenda Carrell have done their part to create successful Hope for Christmas campaigns. This year, the couple agreed to serve as the 2017 Hope for Christmas co-chairs, promoting the program and encouraging others to adopt a family, donate or volunteer their time.
“(Greg and Brenda) are a couple I admire, respect and love. They have had their share of real life struggles and not just survived, but came through stronger than ever,” Bullock said.
Married for more than 35 years, Greg and Brenda grew up in St. James where they met in eighth grade. Greg worked in law enforcement before the couple moved to Jefferson City about 12 years ago. They have two children: Andrew, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, and Erin, a University of Missouri in Columbia graduate now living in Chicago. Family is of the utmost importance to the Carrells, and when Brenda was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, they realized just how important it was.
“I didn’t realize how it affects your whole life, and how it really affected my daughter and son,” said Brenda, who works at a local law office.
Brenda and Greg not only have seen how a traumatic situation can affect a family; they have also seen how tragic loss of lives and properties can impact a family through Greg’s 20-plus year work with the state fire marshal’s office. With ample support from their family, their “fire” family and their family and friends made through Hope for Christmas and other local organizations in which they support, the couple’s outlook on life has been renewed, as well. They understand the true joy of giving and helping those in need, volunteering for multiple local nonprofit organizations and participating in fundraising events.
Even though Greg receives playful grief from fellow program volunteers for his gift wrapping abilities compared to Brenda, the couple enjoys the camaraderie of the activity, donating materials, the surprise visits from Santa and the new friendships made. They are honored to help lead the charge in the community for Hope for Christmas.
“We understand going through hard times, and how challenging it can be. But, we are blessed to have such wonderful people in our lives. Family has no bounds. … We want these families to know they are not alone,” Greg said.
The Hope for Christmas program is one the Family Self-Sufficiency program participants enjoy each year. Last year, they selected six children among three different families, with Bullock helping the adult recipients.
“Many of these ladies don’t have (much at all), but they want to help. They organized the whole thing among themselves, had someone purchase gifts, organized wrap time and everything. … It is so neat to see my family support the program,” Bullock said, noting they are excited to adopt a family again this year.
The families who receive the presents, Bibles and other supplies from the community during Hope For Christmas are overcome with happiness and appreciation.
“Every year after Christmas, I receive texts, phone calls and cards from all the families that was helped, saying thank you so much. … To help someone who sees the sacrifice that someone has made for their family to have Christmas by another family or office of people and really appreciates it, reinforces why we keep doing this program every year,” Bullock said. “If you don’t help us with Hope for Christmas, that is fine but help someone. It’s not about us, it is about the people we help and that others help in our area. It’s all about helping your neighbor regardless of the program, and it takes all of us.”
The Redeem Project’s mission is “because every life counts and no life is beyond redemption.” The resource center and faith-based agency started to help those who didn’t know where to go and for those who fell between the cracks, often needing a second chance.
Part of The Redeem Project’s services include the HUD-funded Family Self-Sufficiency program, which is available to anyone that holds a Section 8 Voucher through the Housing Authority of the City of Jefferson. Promoting employment and increased assets for low-income families receiving federal rent subsidies or public housing, participants in the program work individually with a case manager to set and pursue goals related to education, job training, money management, childcare and transportation, according to The Redeem Project’s website.
During a five-year period, participants have an interest-earning escrow saving account that accumulates as earned income increases. Families receive those funds after successfully completing the program, using those funds to purchase homes, start a small business, pay off debts, go back to school or help their children.
“They are here to learn and they are eager to learn new things – whether it’s budgeting, how to plan or how to cook a meal, how to make their home firesafe. They are like a sponge, ready to soak it all in, and they do,” Bullock said. Even though the FFS program can help individuals in public housing, the classes are open to anyone in the community.
“Everybody needs somebody in their corner to help them and allow them to have that chance to be who they really can be, and kick them in the seat of their pants you can do this,” Bullock said. “I want people to feel comfortable and let them know this is a safe place, regardless of what they’ve done, regardless of where they have been. “That is why people come here. Let’s deal with what you have got going on, head on. Let’s deal with it together and move forward.”
For more information, contact the organization directly at 573-353-4720 or theredeemproject.org.