Volunteer sustains spirit of giving at Christmas House

EVERETT — Mel Hammond always has loved Christmas.

When she was little and got back from church on Christmas mornings, her father would go to great lengths to pretend she’d just missed Santa’s sled taking off from the roof.

She and her husband, Mark, spent their honeymoon on the Polar Express.

She can’t stand to think of a child not getting a single present.

That’s why Hammond, 55, of Everett, got involved with Christmas House, the Everett-based nonprofit that distributes toys, clothing and other gifts to underprivileged children and their families.

Organizers say she’s a treasured volunteer.

Hammond retired in July 2011 from a credit union, where she most recently had worked as a new accounts representative and lead teller.

Christmas House had a donation barrel at her workplace. She’d volunteered elsewhere before, and thought Christmas House seemed like a good fit.

“The thing I noticed the most is the world has gotten pretty jaded as far as people in need,” she said. “You know you pass a dozen people standing on the street corner. You learn about scam after scam, but these parents who come to Christmas House, they have one mission and that is their life might be hard and it might be bleak, but they want one day for their kids not to have to deal with all that.”

Now a director with the organization, Hammond first helped families at Christmas House register, fill out paperwork and “shop” for their presents. Some families can barely afford food and school clothes, let alone something special for Christmas, she said. Some are homeless.

Getting to pick out presents builds self-esteem for parents, she said.

She also helps the organization apply for grants, a skill she picked up at a past job in Baltimore.

That makes Jan Barrow, chairwoman of the grant-writing committee, pretty happy. They met working the front desk at Christmas House, where people get signed up, and Barrow recruited Hammond as soon as she could.

Hammond is a good writer and great with people, Barrow said.

“She has probably the highest level of enthusiasm of any volunteer I have ever seen anywhere,” Barrow said. “She is just enthusiastic, and it’s very contagious.”

At the front desk of Christmas House, volunteers work with people from all walks of life and from countries all over the globe, said Pat Eylander, who leads that part of the organization. They see levels of hunger and poverty in the community that may be invisible elsewhere, she said.

Hammond is kind to everyone, Eylander said.

“You have to have compassion and understanding and acceptance, and she’s got all three,” she said.

At Christmas House, each child gets six gifts: a stocking stuffer, small, medium and large gifts, a clothing item and a family gift.

About 850 people volunteer every year. They’ve helped more than 3,000 families, including 10,500 children, over the years, Hammond said.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor or young or old, there’s just something about the wonder of a child opening a present on Christmas morning,” she said.

For more information about volunteering, donating or participating, call 425-338-2273 or go to www.christmas-house.org.

Christmas House opens Dec. 1. Special accommodations are available for homeless families living in Snohomish County.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com

Christmas House is seeking new toys, clothing, underwear, coats, jackets and pajamas for children for the 2013 event. For a list of donation sites, see www.christmas-house.org.

People also can send checks to Christmas House, P.O. Box 717, Everett, Wa., 98206. Volunteering opportunities are available.

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