Story Courtesy of: LAURA KEBEDE Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Downtown YMCA became Richmond Christmas Mother Kathie Markel’s workshop Tuesday morning, complete with eight helpers in holiday-themed headband boppers.

Markel’s helpers, otherwise known as Circle of Friends, have wrapped donated presents for the organization since its program Christmas Connection started 15 years ago.

What once started as an open call for families who could not afford Christmas presents for their children has transformed into an effort aimed at disadvantaged children already in YMCA programs, downtown YMCA executive director David Kunnen said.

This year, instead of presenting gifts to children at their annual holiday event, parents will receive the gifts so their children can open them Christmas Day. This way, Kunnen said, parents will be more involved in the process even though most of the children know the gifts came from YMCA donors.

“Christmas becomes a stressor for these families,” he said. “It’s not going to rob any parents of their dignity.”

Many parents over the years have gone from the sidelines to partnering side-by-side with the YMCA, Kunnen added.

The Downtown YMCA’s Christmas Connection 2013 program started last month in its lobby with more than 100 tags representing children from Woodville, Fox and Holton elementary schools and the organization’s preschool on Main Street on its Christmas tree. There are still 20 more children in need of donations. The children receive a coat, hat or gloves and an item from their wish list.

The Richmond Christmas Mother Fund was established in 1935 by The Richmond News Leader to provide needy children and families with toys, clothing, food and other assistance during the holidays. It later became a joint project with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The Richmond Christmas Mother is selected each year as a representative of the outreach. Markel as Richmond Christmas Mother is trying to highlight ongoing efforts in the region as part of the fund’s plans to expand its reach and offer organizations the opportunity to apply for money through grants.

Kunnen said that money could help Downtown YMCA expand the Christmas experience for children in their program including holiday lights tours.

Markel organized Circle of Friends in 1996 when her grown children moved out, leaving her with extra time on her hands. She found other mothers in similar situations and networked with local organizations to find short-term projects the nonprofit might not have the time, people or resources to complete.

She limited membership to about 60 people as interest grew. The group has sorted donations, stuffed envelopes, painted and did whatever it could, often totaling 50 projects a year — about 850 since its inception.

For JoAnne Crone, who has volunteered all 17 years, the group’s volunteerism is first and foremost about helping the community. Along the way, she’s learned about many nonprofit efforts in the city and become close friends with the other women.

“I wouldn’t know that lady from Adam,” before they started volunteering together, Crone said as Circle of Friends members hugged and dispersed after wrapping presents. “We also get something out of it ourselves.”

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