For one magical day in December, IBEW Local 252’s business hall is transformed into a winter wonderland complete with snowy décor, festive trees and the North Pole’s most famous residents.
Twenty students from Rawsonville Elementary School in Ypsilanti gather in the space as Mrs. Claus reads a story about animals finding a warm home for the winter. Soon there is food, crafts, photos and a visit from Santa all leading up to the most awaited moment of the day: presents.
This is no ordinary holiday party. This is a Labor of Love.
“The whole Labor of Love event is funded by labor,” said Rella Bitner, AFL-CIO Labor Liaison at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “It’s been a thirty-year program, and I try to keep up that tradition because the need in our community is still so great.”
Labor and United Way have worked side-by-side for more than 80 years to improve the lives of working families.
Roughly 30 years ago, Shelia Pederson’s local UAW Region 1A started the Adopt-a-Child program to provide presents for children in need during the holiday. In 2010, when Shelia took on the role of United Way Community Service Liaison, she brought the program with her.
Over the years, the program has evolved, but the objective remained the same. During COVID, the program’s name was changed to Gift and Go, in which Santa’s helpers focused on home gift deliveries to spread the Christmas cheer.
“It’s my goal to not only take care of the working families in Washtenaw County, but also the children,” said Shelia. “This time of year, kids can really be hurt by missing out on gifts or other celebrations because their family can’t afford it.”
Shelia remains involved in the program even after retiring. This year, she stood proud as head elf assisting Mrs. Claus.
This year, 20 kindergarten through fourth grade students were selected by their school’s counselors and faculty to participate based on need. Fifteen additional families also received gifts.
“It’s really wonderful bringing Mrs. Claus to the kids, my heart just bursts for them,” said Rosa Bird who donned a long red and white robe and white hair to bring the character to life. “Christmas is always hard for me because I lost my daughter and husband this time of year. This event makes my season brighter.”
For many volunteers, the Labor of Love event is a defining moment of their holiday season. Michael Martin, who has volunteered at the event for the past seven years, often recommends the festivities to those who could use some extra cheer this time of year.
“This is about one of the best things that happens during the Christmas season, you actually see Christmas,” said Michael, chairman of UAW Local 174. “I actually recommend this to people who are not having a good day to come over here and it’ll lift their day up.”
“We try to do what needs to be done to help the kids, and we thank God for United Way,” Michael added. “If we didn’t have United Way, we wouldn’t be doing this—no way.”
After creating DIY ornaments from sparkly tinsel, pipe cleaners, beads and string, it was time for Santa’s arrival. The room erupted into the joy-filled chaos that is normally reserved for Christmas morning as each child received their sack of presents.
“This is the best day ever! I got a bunch, a lot, a lot of gifts, like this many,” said Auna, a kindergartner, as she ran in a big circle to illustrate the amount of gifts she received. “All of that! I love Santa.”
Third grader, Jayceon unwrapped a NERF toy and beamed as he thought about playing it with his siblings.
“I’ll let them play with all the toys because I know they’d share with me, too,” said Jayceon.
First grader Willow pulled each one of her toys in close for a hug. Barely able to contain her excitement, she announced to the room just how much she loved each toy.
“This is my favorite!” Willow yelled, tearing the wrapping paper off Barbie and her tree house. Then again, after opening a giant version of Guess Who, “I wanted this, too!”
While the kids were distracted unwrapping the numerous gift, the Grinch entered the scene—no doubt attracted by the abundance of gifts. The Grinch weaved through the children trying to drag away their big bags, to their protest. Luckily, Santa was there to chase him out.
“I don’t like the Grinch, he was trying to steal our presents!” said Auna. “Santa said to the Grinch, ‘Will you please get out?’ Santa is the best.”
With presents safe from the Grinch, volunteers reflected on the excitement of shopping for the kids.
“The shopping experience is a lot of fun and it’s a little bit of a frenzy,” said Aaron Pistor, business agent of the Local 2 Bricklayers Union. “You’ve got all these adults that are shopping in the kids’ section saying, ‘What do you think about this and what do you think about that?’ It’s nice to be able to take time out and realize you can help other people.”
But it is not just toys that are being wrapped, parents were able to submit a list of their child’s needs whether that be shoes or clothes, and those special items would be included amongst the toys.
“When you’re buying boots, jackets, pajamas, pants, undergarments and socks, it really hits home that they need these things,” said Aaron, who spent his birthday at the event. “And it’s nice that they list their interests for us so we can buy them in the style of Frozen, Barbie or whatever they’d like. When you don’t have a lot, it means a lot.”
“To actually see the gifts we give the kids being appreciated, it’s special,” said Michael.
The students’ delight was palpable as impromptu Christmas carols rang out across the room.
As the event ended and the children were loaded back onto their school, the resource room teacher, Sammie Tanana, gave a heartfelt speech of gratitude to the volunteers.
“We’ve got kids who have incarcerated parents, kids who are in foster care and kids who are homeless all within this trip,” said Sammie. “You might not tell through their smiling faces, but they go through so much. You guys make a huge difference, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
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