Volunteers Deliver Gifts on Christmas Eve
It started out as a random act of kindness—there was never a plan to do it again, much less launch an organization.
Around 20 years ago in Huntsville, AL, Stacy Hamburger, director of Christmas Commandos, had a co-worker whose wife passed away shortly before Christmas. He was completely tapped out and unsure of how he’d pull off Christmas for his four children. Hamburger and a fellow co-worker took matters into their own hands—buying gifts and secretly hanging them from the family’s trees for them to find in the morning.
The next year, a hospice coordinator contacted Hamburger to see if she’d do the same thing for other families. Thus, Christmas Commandos was born. Now, each year on Christmas Eve, stealthy volunteers, clad in all-black, head out on their covert mission: anonymously delivering gifts to children who have lost a parent in the past year.
Christmas Commandos is a non-profit, volunteer-based organization which has been in Charleston since 1998, when Hamburger moved here. Their goal is to make the holidays more joyful for the children and provide emotional support to the families by delivering gifts.
Since its founding, the organization has grown and over 100 children receive gifts each year.
“It takes a couple hundred volunteers from cradle to grave. It’s a massive undertaking and is the most chaotic, compassionate program of love you’ve ever seen,” Hamburger says, “You’ll have someone crossing a sea of people rolling a Barbie bike looking for the matching helmet and seven people stop what they’re doing to help find it.”
Each year, the group locks down a toy command location, which is donated and can be anything from a warehouse to a church—anywhere with enough space to fit the many gifts it takes to give these kids a full Christmas.
Names then pour in and volunteers reach out to anyone who has ties to the kids to learn everything they can, such as favorite colors and hobbies, so the gifts can be individualized.
Volunteer Janine Deccola is on her 7th Christmas with the group.
“Although you’ve never met the kids, you feel like you know them when shopping for gifts. You’re not picking out something for just any child, but rather for a particular child,” Deccola says.
Leading up to Christmas, there are toy and battery drives, fundraisers and wrapping parties. Gwynn’s retailer in Mt. Pleasant has an angel tree each year that customers use to fulfill many of the toy donation wishes for the organization.
Before the big night, Deccola scopes out the houses. Are there security lights? Is there a Great Dane in the front yard?
When asked why the presents are hung from the trees, Hamburger explains they wanted the gifts to be in a secure, dry place.
“In retrospect, it was something we did right for not the reasons we thought,” Hamburger says.
It’s a magical sight to see presents hanging from trees—almost as if they fell from heaven. No note is left, allowing each child to assimilate the information to make it work for them.
“Families dread sitting around the tree, but suddenly they’re outside with hockey sticks trying to get gifts down. This is what they’ll remember forever,” Hamburger says.
The night of Christmas Eve, there are six to seven delivery groups escorted by police cruisers for security. Although some are indifferent at first, Deccola says by the second house, the officers have a new-found enthusiasm for the mission.
One of Deccola’s most memorable moments was delivering gifts to a family of three children and their grandparents. In some areas, the officer knocks on the door once the volunteers are hidden to ensure the gifts are received.
This night, their grandpa answered the door as the kids took in the packages before them. As the kids ran to their gifts, the grandfather told the officer, “You made our Christmas,” and pointed inside to just three small gifts under the tree—one for each child.
Deccola says these moments are why she does it each year. Around 5 a.m., after her route is finished, she heads to the airport to jet off to Cleveland to be with family.
Just another successful year for the unseen and unheard Christmas Commandos.