South Side Santa

Inside the CD4AP Free Store

Free Store Serves 500 Children During the Holiday Season

Most people admit they need at least a little help getting through the chaos and craziness of the winter holiday season. But ask Dessaree Watters how much help she needs and her answer might surprise you.

“Oh, I need about 150 volunteers; 200 if you count all the preparation work,” she says.

That might sound like a lot until you know that Dessaree throws one of the biggest Christmas parties on the South Side. As the director of the Free Store at the United Methodist Church for All People on Parsons Avenue, Dessaree oversees Christmas Shop, a one-day event that provides over $50,000 worth of new toys, bikes and clothing to 500 South Side children ages 0 to 12 years.

To be fair, calling Christmas Shop a one-day event does not do it justice. As Dessaree talks about Christmas Shop early in September, she notes that calls have already started. Potential donors start reaching out in the middle of summer and her team begins the serious planning as soon as they get through backto- school projects in late August. In fact, some aspects of Christmas Shop, like cultivating donors and collecting brand new bikes, are year-round endeavors.

“It is always in the back of my mind,” she says.

Dessaree’s commitment to this work comes from her own experiences. After growing up in Urbana, Ohio, and living in Chicago for several years, she moved to Columbus in 2013. While things in Columbus started out well for her, a period of unemployment caused some hard times. Those hard times led to Dessaree’s first experience with the Free Store. She needed some help and came there as a shopper. “It was hard. It can be humiliating to get these kinds of services,” she says.

At the same time, she felt gratitude that she was able to get some of the support she needed. As her situation improved, she committed to giving back. She and her
daughter became regular volunteers at the Free Store.

After a couple of years volunteering, the position of Free Store assistant coordinator opened up. Dessaree saw joining the staff as a way for her story to come full circle. She wanted to help others just as the Free Store had helped her. She applied for the job and was hired. Not long after, Dessaree was promoted to Free Store director, a post she has held for about two years. Over those two years, she has proven to be an impeccable organizer and administrator. Those skills notwithstanding, she knows the main reason she received this opportunity.

“I’ve been there,” she says. “I can relate and be empathetic.”

That empathy gives Dessaree a special perspective on Christmas Shop. The task of being Santa Claus to 500 children might seem burdensome to some people. Add to that the fact that COVID-19 restrictions will likely force difficult changes to this year’s event. Registration and shopping will have to be spread out over multiple days and include strict health safety procedures. You could understand the program director dreading what lies ahead. Not Dessaree.

“It is my favorite time of the year. It is very emotional. There are lots of tears and hugs as I get to experience the joy of seeing parents have a burden taken off their shoulders,” she says. “There are lots of places that do Christmas, but not like ours. We give people real choices for what to get their kids.”

Christmas Shop provides incredible choices to its participants. During registration, Dessaree’s staff gets the clothing sizes of every child who signs up. She and her team then make sure that there are enough new clothes so that the 500 participants get a complete outfit that fits just right. That level of detail requires mountains of inventory that can’t be received through clothing donation drives, so Dessaree and her elves must go shopping.

“Oh, one year, we just went to the South Side Walmart to get most of the clothes. Three of us felt like we bought all of the clothes in the kid’s department,” she says. “We went up to the front of the store with this caravan of 12 shopping carts filled to overflowing. People were stopping us and asking if there was a big sale they should know about. ‘No,’ we said, ‘this is just us shopping.’”

They had so much stuff that the store staff asked them to go to a separate check out so they wouldn’t hold up the regular lines. Dessaree says the work of Christmas Shop leaves she and her staff exhausted. They feel a sense of relief when the big event finally closes.

“It is a long day, for sure,” she says. “My calendar is marked. My vacation starts the day after Christmas Shop is over!”

A little bit of relaxation seems like a perfect gift for the person who throws the biggest Christmas party on the South Side. 

This story was originally featured in the November/December 2020 HNHF Newsletter. Click here to download the full newsletter.

To Donate: If you want to donate to Christmas Shop, call the Free Store at (614) 443-1713. If you want to donate new bicycles for Christmas Shop, call Bikes for All People at (614) 670-8685.