December 15, 2023
• An innovative program through the Needham Community Council allows all residents to get in on the gift-giving.
On the last day of the Needham Community Council’s gift drive in 2019, a mother came in hoping to pick out presents for her children. But her options were limited.
“All the good stuff had gone, and it was disappointing to see her not find something she loved for her kids,” NCC Program Director Judy Lambert said.
That moment, as well as the pandemic, drove Lambert and the NCC to start the Holiday Hearts program the following winter, ensuring that every community member in need gets to have the best celebration possible. Instead of appointments to choose pre-selected Christmas and Hanukkah gifts, residents receive gift cards to purchase their own items tailored to their and their loved ones’ interests.
The operational change evens the playing field while also supporting local businesses, Lambert said. The NCC also doesn’t need to worry about where leftover donations will go.
“Part of the joy of the holidays is picking out presents that really mean something to people, especially your kids,” Lambert said. “And so it really gave them an extra sense of dignity and ownership and holiday spirit by being able to go and pick out their own toys.”
In its first year in 2020, the NCC partnered with Michelson’s Shoes and Learning Express, drawing traffic to their doors and thereby keeping holiday spending local, Lambert said. It’s a full-scale operation, with volunteers creating custom cards and wrapping them up with candies, chapstick and decorations. The Sending Smiles Project wrote greeting cards to be included in deliveries this year.
About 331 households are participating in the Holiday Hearts, NCC Executive Director Sandy Robinson said. Adults will receive a $50 Target gift card, while children and teens aged 11 through 18 will receive a $100 Target gift card. Children 10 years and under will get $100 to Learning Express — there, the NCC only covers what is redeemed.
Every family is also receiving $25 for Roche Bros., 50% of which the grocery store donated, Robinson added. The goody bags started going out last week.
The initiative works to both provide for people around the holidays and educate them on other available resources.
“It’s also another way for people to be aware that the food pantry exists, and if they need holiday support, chances are they need support year round,” Robinson said. “And so this is a wonderful entry to introduce them to us and really show them what’s possible.”
The Holiday Hearts effort starts in the summer, when the NCC begins to gather the boxes. In September, those are sent out to community organizations — including the Girl Scouts and Sunday school classes — to decorate with stickers and colorful illustrations. The NCC collects gift cards beginning in October, using donations or receiving help from local charities.
More recently, Robinson said they’ve witnessed a pronounced increase in need. The cost of living is expensive, she said, and Needhamites “living on the edge” can sometimes fall through the cracks.
With more families arriving from Ukraine, as well as expected refugees from Israel and Palestine, Robinson said the NCC will do its part in ensuring all new residents are supported. Those eligible for the program are Needham residents who actively use the NCC food pantry or are referred by guidance, clergy and social workers.
“Our goal is to try to give people enough to make things more equitable,” she said, “so everybody gets a holiday gift.”
In partnership with Temple Beth Shalom, the NCC will also prepare and deliver 160 Christmas meals to locals in need.
When the gift cards go out, seeing people’s reactions is “amazing,” Lambert said
“They’re getting something they know their child would really enjoy and benefit from,” Lambert said, “and the joy of watching them open up something that they really did want on Christmas morning or the first night of Hanukkah, it’s very cool.”