It’s no question that at UFCW Local 152, we have some of the most hardworking members. This time of year, United Food and Commercial Workers across the nation are putting in extra time, effort, and energy to make the holidays happen for the rest of the world. But each and every day, many of our members clock out from their union position and continue to make a difference for others outside of work.
This is especially true for 37-year member Nancy Riess, the Scanning Coordinator and Shop Steward at Village ShopRite in Galloway, New Jersey. For Nancy, the holidays are not just about shopping and spending time with friends and family: it’s an opportunity to give back to the community she’s lived in all her life. For the last seventeen years, the eight Village-owned stores in southern New Jersey have displayed a “Giving Tree.” The premise is simple: the Giving Tree displays hundreds of tags, containing names and a small wish list of less fortunate, local children under the age of eighteen. Every year, customers are invited to take a child’s tag, purchase something from their wish list, and return it back to the store unwrapped by a designated date. And just like that, the child will receive a gift for Christmas – possibly the only gift he or she will receive for Christmas that year.
The program launched back in 2001, when Nancy realized her youngest daughter didn’t show interest in creating her own list for Christmas. “She didn’t know need,” she said, and to show her daughter that some people go without every single day, Nancy decided to reach out to Family Services of Egg Harbor Township, NJ to see how she and her daughter could help.
Nancy was given 200 children’s names that first year. In an effort to entice customers and thank them for their donation, Nancy and her three daughters created holiday-themed pins to attach to the tags as a lasting gift for the donor. That year was hugely successful, for all two hundred children received gifts on Christmas Day.
What began as an innocent inquiry has grown into a massive undertaking, taking many months to plan. After the first year, other organizations began personally reaching out to Nancy to add their children to the Giving Tree. This year, Nancy received an incredible 2,000 names from various local organizations, including Division of Child Protection and Permanency, Avanzar (formally The Women’s Center), Covenant House, Family Success Centers and several other organizations who host children from Atlantic, Cape, and Cumberland counties. It marked her 4th year in a row with 2,000 names or more!
While most kids ask for the latest game or toy, often the lists beg for simpler things; in fact, clothes, coats, and shoes are often on wish lists, even of the younger children. One asked for a donation to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital on their behalf. And one child even asked for a pillow.
“It breaks my heart to think about so many kids possibly waking up on Christmas morning and not having a single gift,” she said. “They’re too young to understand why Santa didn’t come.”
Because the program continues to grow year after year, it takes a small army of volunteers–or elves, she jokes–to make the Giving Tree program happen.
Nancy brainstorms all year long for new pin ideas, and in seventeen years, has never repeated a pin theme. That being said, having two thousand names meant Nancy needed to make two thousand pins! Luckily, besides her daughters, Nancy has recruited the help of fellow UFCW Local 152 members and retirees, including Phyllis Pitt, Barbara Mellnick, Diana Kurtz, Kim Gifford, Carol Henderson and so many others, all of who have helped her repeatedly throughout the years. The team usually meet throughout the fall to create the pins.
As customers return with gifts for the children, a truck goes from store to store to collect the presents, and eventually deliver the gifts to the Somers Point store, where they will be picked up by the various organizations. Nancy Mahoney, the Store Manager of the Somers Point store, not only helps Nancy with pin creation but also allows her to store the toys and gifts on site. “I don’t know what I would do with all the gifts if I didn’t have her.”
The holidays are a season of giving. Whenever the Giving Tree program feels like too much during the busiest time of the year, Nancy vividly remembers an encounter with a mother of children who were once on the list.
A few years ago, Nancy was paged down from her office by a stranger. The woman told Nancy that she and her two children were living in the Atlantic City Rescue Mission the Christmas before, and the gifts from the Giving Tree were the only gifts her children received that year. She had come in the store just to find Nancy, to not only thank her for the wonderful program, but to let her know that she was paying it forward by buying for two children that year.
“That’s what it’s about: giving back.”
There’s still time for you to participate in the Giving Tree program for the 2018 season. Visit your nearest Village ShopRite and look for the marked tree with tags, like the ones pictured below.
Nancy, on behalf of UFCW Local 152, thank you for your extraordinary selflessness and dedication to the children in your community for the past seventeen years. We are proud to be your union.
On Monday, December 3rd, Nancy was featured on SNJ Today, a local news program. Watch the video below: