Secret Santa shopping: Joy of Giving helps families have a Merry Christmas

Lance Shearer

Nicki Davis didn’t want this story to be about her. But it is.

At five o’clock on Saturday morning, hundreds of parents gathered in the darkness outside the Walmart adjacent to Rookery Bay. When the doors opened, they checked in according to their children’s schools, and went on a shopping spree to get them gifts.

The Joy of Giving, the hands-on, grassroots, person-to-person Marco-based charitable organization, provided the funds for over 1,100 children in those families to receive $150 each in gifts, in a tradition Joy of Giving founder Nicki Davis began in 1988.

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The charity sprung from an idea Davis had in 1988, when she turned her real estate office “Secret Santa” gift exchange into giving to a few local families who could not afford Christmas presents for their kids. The program blossomed, and this year, Marco Island clubs, groups and individuals gave over $170,000 to spread the bounty of Christmas to the less well-off.

Dozens of volunteers got up “dark and early” to staff the event, including guidance counselors from 17 area schools who identified families which would benefit most from the organization’s largesse. Children from Shadowlawn, Vineyards, Parkside, Oak Ridge, East Naples, Golden Gate, Golden Terrace, Estates, Lake Park, Manatee, Poinciana, Avalon, Everglades, Mike Davis, and Sabal Palm schools all included in the program. Gifts go to children up to age 17, and when one child in a family is accepted into the program, all children in the family receive the same $150 credit.

One of the great things about Joy of Giving’s approach is it keeps the parents in control, so they are Santa to the kids. “We give the parents the dignity to shop,” said Davis. Gifts go to children up to age 17, and when one child in a family is accepted into the program, all children in the family receive a gift allotment.

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In pre-COVID days, children would accompany their parents to the store, making it easier for them to ensure the parents came home with the right item, but Saturday morning, the crowd of parents didn’t seem to have any problem filling their shopping carts. There was no single “gotta have it” item this year, said store manager Diana Valencia, although she said that table games and VR goggles were in high demand.

“People are still staying home a lot,” she said. Bicycles, as always, were popular items, and quickly populated parents’ carts. Vanessa Gonzalez scored a frilly pink model with shiny streamers for her five-year-old daughter. James Tich loaded his cart with three bikes. “That’s what they all wanted,” he said.

There was a crush in the toy department, and consumer electronics was a busy section. You could find a little more space by shopping in the book aisle.

Some of the volunteers have been working all year to raise funds for that early Saturday morning, including Allyson Richards, Kris Zimmerman, and Pat and Scot Kaufman. The United Church of Marco raised $30,000 for Joy of Giving, while the Island Country Club, a longtime supporter, provided $70,000. The Community Association Managers of Marco Island gave a check for $3,500, and Marco’s Noontime Rotary is a regular contributor.

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Many of the volunteers return year after year, including Amber Richardson, Linda Coopman, and Jared and Nicole Van Wagner. Davis said she couldn’t get by without the assistance of Walmart’s Bridget Weium. Paul and Amy Ashby and Al and Myrna Diaz bring along the whole family. Those helping out say they get the most out of it, which is what the joy of giving is all about.