The gymnasium at Orchard Elementary School in Billings was buzzing with conversation Saturday, as parents and guardians of students at the South Side school shopped for Christmas presents.
As music played over the PA system, dozens of people browsed long tables laden with toys of all kinds at the ninth annual South Side Christmas Store. Dolls and balls, Legos, games, markers and crayons, fire trucks and train sets were among the potential gifts, waiting to be chosen.
Shoppers picked out their gifts, paid for them, then waited as the presents were wrapped. By the time all the shoppers were done, there weren’t many items left behind.
The annual event is a joint effort of the Orchard Elementary staff and Community Leadership Development Inc., a faith-based nonprofit. It allows shoppers, divided into morning and afternoon sessions, to buy the presents for a fraction of what they would cost in stores.
Christmas can be stressful when money is tight and there’s little left in the budget for gifts.
“Everybody has hard times sometimes,” school counselor Melida Kessler said. “So it’s just nice to be able to help them provide Christmas for their families.”
Brand new items are donated by churches, community members and school employees, Kessler said. The gifts come in throughout the preceding week, and the students get a look at them when they come to gym class.
“They say ‘I’m going to tell my mom I want that, or my dad,’ ” she said. “So the parents come in and they look for those specific items. They’re very appreciative.”
On Saturday, Sandra Bird was smiling as she watched the gifts she’d picked out for her third-grade daughter being wrapped.
“I really appreciate that they do this,” Bird said. “And a lot of stuff she likes, it’s here. So I’m really grateful and happy.”
Latasha McCalister, mother to a fifth-grade son at Orchard, found everything she wanted.
“It’s like ‘Merry Christmas to me,’ ” she said, her shopping completed. “You can come here and you get awesome gifts for your children at very affordable prices.”
To top it off, all the volunteer “elves” wrap the gifts, she said.
“It is a blessing and I pray they continue the good work,” McCalister said.
Louise McCalister, Latasha’s mother, came along to help her with the shopping.
She called the program amazing. “Just the idea of so many people coming together to bless people who don’t have a lot,” she said.
Kaylee Thompson, of CLDI, said her organization is pleased to partner with Orchard to make the event happen. CLDI is involved in a number of different outreaches on the South Side.
Both it and the Orchard School staff play their parts in making the annual Christmas store possible.
“We live in this neighborhood, these are our friends, these are people in our community,” Thompson said. “And we want to do something that is beneficial and helpful for them and give them that opportunity to be the ones to bring the gifts home to their kids.”
Doug Brakke and his wife, Brenda, donate gifts to the program, and also sometimes wrap gifts, as both were doing on Saturday. Just to see the expressions on the shoppers’ faces “makes it all worthwhile,” Brakke said.
He admits his wrapping skills aren’t on the same level as his wife’s. Her gift-wrapped presents are perfect, he said, while his "look OK."
For him, being involved with the annual store is the best present of all.
”This is what Christmas is about,” he said. “It’s all about giving.”