For many, Christmas is an exciting and joyous time of year. It’s a time for buying gifts, wrapping presents and placing them under the tree. But for families who find themselves on harder times, it can be a challenging, miserable experience.

Fourteen years ago Linda Aalborg, children’s pastor for the Littleton Adventist Church in the suburbs of south Denver, felt impressed to do something to assist families in need of help and hope during the Christmas holidays. She partnered with Littleton Adventist Hospital to create a “Christmas Store” where children could “shop” for their family members without having to spend a dime.

The idea took wings, and today several other local churches and Adventist hospitals around the Denver area also host Christmas Stores for those who might otherwise find an empty void under their trees.

“It’s become a great example of what a partnership between local schools, churches, hospitals and vendors can do when we all work together,” shares Dave Kennedy, lead pastor of Newday Christian Seventh-day Adventist Church in Parker, Colorado. Newday partners with Parker Adventist Hospital to operate a Christmas Store for the Parker community. Dave says, “Not only are we helping families have a better Christmas, but we’re also creating opportunities for our community to work together in meaningful ways.”

Lisa Engelkemier, executive pastor for Newday, has taken on the coordinating role for the Parker Christmas Store, now in its fourth year of serving. “It’s a major team effort,” says Lisa. “It couldn’t happen without all of us working together. But the real payoff is the smiles on the faces of the families who are blessed by this cooperative effort.”

Each year, sponsoring churches work closely with school social workers to identify families who are most in need. Christmas Store invitations are given to 100 students at local public elementary and middle schools whose families have been selected.

When the families arrive at the Christmas Store, the parents are taken to a specially decorated room where they enjoy hot drinks, snacks and planned activities. In the meantime, the children are taken into the shopping room where a wide variety of gifts await their choosing.

Perhaps they will pick a waffle iron or bathrobe for Mom and a tool set or mini barbecue grill for Dad. There are brand new presents to choose from for brothers and sisters and even grandparents. A “personal shopping assistant” shepherds each child through the process of selecting gifts for family members, as well as for him- or herself.

“That can be the most touching moment,” shares Lisa. “The children are often surprised that they can choose something for themselves as well. Often they’ll say, ‘Oh I don’t need anything for me. Just for my family.’”

The Christmas Store experience culminates in a gift-wrapping session. Each family leaves with a completely personalized set of beautifully wrapped gifts, ready to put under their tree. It’s not uncommon to hear the children say to their parents, “Wait ’til you see what I got you!” The joy and excitement is palpable as they head to their cars with their treasures.

The schools report overwhelmingly positive responses from parents. “We were treated with such kindness and dignity,” shared one family.

This year, plans are in place to operate Christmas Stores at Porter, Littleton and Parker Adventist Hospitals. The hospitals provide conference room space, decorations and financial gifts to purchase the presents. Hospital employees and church members work alongside one another, volunteering their time and energy to man the store and wrap the gifts. Hospital leaders hope to see the Christmas Store program expand in future years.

“This is exactly the kind of community outreach that we should be involved in,” says Morre Dean, CEO of Porter Adventist Hospital. “It blesses our employees; it blesses our churches; and it blesses our neighbors. It’s what the spirit of Christmas is about. And it’s just another example of seeing our mission—Extending the healing ministry of Christ”—in action.

To find out more about the Christmas Store program, contact Centura Health’s Office of Mission Integration at 303.778.5683.

This article was submitted by Stephen King, senior vice president for the Rocky Mountain Adventist Health/Centura Health, where he serves the five Adventist hospital campuses in Colorado. It was written by Mark Bond.