Carolyn L. Higgins – Contributing Writer

Many people with good intentions have been moved by an offer to nominate someone for a specific honor or special prize. But, before they realized it, time had flown by, the motivation had waned and alas, the deadline had passed. Often, these are not critical events. However as the Christmas holidays approach, that statement does not ring true. Numerous families are struggling to make ends meet with little left over, worrying how they are going to provide the next meal and pay bills, let alone buy Christmas toys to fulfill their children’s wants and needs.

Recognizing this dilemma, BI-LO Stores, a proven community partner with a lengthy service record, has sponsored its Annual Giving Tree for at least six years. The store actively invests and takes the lead, but believes a vibrant, involved community makes for an engaged, extended family and boosts goodwill for all.

Pam Bowen, BI-LO’s florist and outside event coordinator in the Franklin area spoke with compassion.

 “Anything BI-LO is involved in besides selling groceries, I am there. The Christmas parade, hot dog sales on the sidewalk, Ladies Night Out at the hospital, the breakfast for the veterans on Fridays, that’s me.” With all this on her plate, she is still saddened that the response has been slow to nominate families in need for this annual event. 

Bowen says BI-LO is committed because they believe in taking care of their own. That may include sponsoring local games for Franklin High School, providing water for away trips, or other services they can fulfill. 

“It is just very important to show our support and our loyalty to Macon County, because our shoppers are Macon County . . .they’re our family, we recognize them, we care about them, and encourage them to care about each other . . . and they do a great job. Sometimes we get so busy and just need a reminder.”

Like multiple branches on a Christmas tree, BI-LO is here and there, choosing to help in any way possible rather than focusing on a niche. Customers and the community at large have responded with both appreciation and participation. Bowen says she’s heard gratitude because they know they can come to them for their needs whether it is a benefit for someone with cancer or the kids going on a field trip to Washington, D.C. next year.

Leading by example 

The Franklin BI-LO store has helped its own teammates. When it was recognized that there were single moms who were struggling to provide for their children, their own colleagues chose them as the recipients of the Giving Tree. 

“Taking care of our own, we just wrote the children’s sizes and ages without any names or anything,” said Bowen. “Only I knew the names. Other teammates knew the tags on those trees were teammate tags, but they didn’t know which teammates. It was confidential, because we didn’t want anybody to be embarrassed or feel bad that they weren’t able to provide for the kids like they wanted to. We asked them to choose three or four toy requests. For the most part we like the socks, pajamas, pants, shirts, boots, gloves – that kind of stuff over the toys; but we asked for at least three Santa wishes.”


How the community can nominate

It begins with a one-page donation letter where the proposer shares why the family is chosen. This year’s entry deadline is Nov. 10. The letter should include a little bit of the back-story – what they’re struggling with, any special situations and the parents’ phone numbers. Bowen asks permission first and lets them know in a kind way, “Somebody in the community has nominated you to perhaps bring a little bit more cheer to your kids at Christmas.” Proposers may remain anonymous if that is their desire.

The store usually chooses four families to provide a quality Christmas experience for each one. Parents who are nominated receive a call from Bowen or her management team and are asked to provide ages, sizes and the three Santa wishes. Each child will have 8 to 10 tags on the tree. A few days before Christmas, large bags will leave the store with at least 10 items for each child.

From tags to toys and other goodies

“So here’s how it works,” said Bowen. “They bring me the list for children ages 6 to 16. I have tags that look like gift tags; and I write: ‘boy age 7, pant size this; girl, age 6, loves Barbie’ and so on. And our customers look forward for this every year. They’ll start asking me pretty soon, ‘when is the tree going up?’

“And then on a clipboard, we have a sheet of paper for each child with what I have on the tag. They take the tag off the Christmas tree, and they go to the service desk. Whoever is working the service desk checks it off. Now we know the person who got it, and we have a phone number. So, when we get close if those tags aren’t coming back in, we can call to remind them we need the Giving Tree things brought in as soon as possible.”

The December 15 gifting deadline is a little more than a month away once the nomination .letters are in. Bowen asks for the gifts to be returned to the store by then, wrapped and with the tag attached to the gift so they know the child who was picked. BI-LO has a big room upstairs where Bowen and her teammates load the gifts, separate them by family and then bag them. The families are notified and a time scheduled to meet them outside the business area at another location.

Anticipation, then tears of joy and appreciation are varied emotions from the parents. Some return to say “thank you so much, we had a great Christmas,” said Bowen, glowing like a tree light. “We don’t get to see the kids’ reactions, but we just think about them on Christmas morning knowing they are going to have a little bit better Christmas.”  

 Bowen orders Christmas ornaments inscribed individually with teammates’ names. The day after the last tag has been pulled from the Giving Tree, it then also becomes a BI-LO “family tree.” The tree transitions, taking on a new personality true to the word evergreen – giving new life and extending the Christmas spirit. This is another BI-LO family tradition where they recognize their own.  

‘Some need to give, and some 

need to receive’

BI-LO has 800 stores so often has to cut back on donations. That’s where the big teammate hearts and hands go into action. A focus group of management pre-pays for sodas in their drink machine, and teammates pay $1.00 into a box for each soda. That’s the money they use when someone comes in and asks for a gift card, a cake or something for a benefit. It is a family that recognizes need and encourages the local community to participate. This is the first year that the nominee goal hasn’t been reached, and there is not an alternative group to serve such as teammates. Employees are helping others with big hearts and hands and want to benefit others as in years past.  

“Everybody knows somebody that’s in need,” said Bowen. “It doesn’t have to be a long detailed letter. Just, ‘Hey I know this family that lives down the street. I know the dad lost his job, they must be struggling, they’ve got three kids.’ It could be someone you know from church and can improve that fellowship if you choose not to remain anonymous and let them know. Everyone needs something – some need to give and some need to receive to celebrate the real meaning of Christmas.”