By Ryan Montoto
The pandemic is changing the ways one nonprofit spreads holiday cheer.
In 2019, the Junior League of Gainesville, Florida, Inc. (JLG) provided holiday gifts to 615 disadvantaged children at its annual Miracle on Main Street toy sale. The event’s 30-year anniversary is Dec. 5, and the nonprofit is set to break its own record, checking off a whopping 800 wish lists.
“With COVID-19, we have found the need in Alachua County has been the greatest we have ever experienced,” said Melissa Zawada, Miracle on Main Street chair.
“Our existing community partners have asked if we could provide gifts for more families, and new agencies have reached out to us for support,” she continued.
These community partners include 26 different organizations and agencies, such as the Florida Guardian ad Litem and the Ronald McDonald House Charities of North Central Florida.
These organizations do not provide financial assistance to the JLG. Rather, they act as a liaison between the nonprofit and families who struggle to provide gifts to their children during the holiday season.
“They’re able to identify families who really need some Christmas spirit,” said 32-year old Stephanie Frank, the executive vice president of the JLG.
“Once that family gives that wish list back to that agency or organization, they then give that to us, and we’re able to go shop,” said Frank.
Miracle on Main Street is always held the first Saturday of December. Families go through a JLG-made toy store with a personal shopper and leave with gifts for their children and a pantry bag, part of the nonprofit’s Action Against Hunger Initiative.
The JLG is a nonprofit of women that promotes voluntarism, develops the potential of women and improves communities through trained volunteers. It is committed to improving the Gainesville community through a number of drives and collaborative projects year-round, with the help of its 400 members, community donations and grants.
That being said, the pandemic has forced the nonprofit to modify some of its efforts, cancel others altogether and rely more on donations than ever before.
“Businesses and organizations were unable to commit to space [for the Miracle on Main Street] because of COVID-19,” said Zawada.
“Our committee also faced funding challenges as grants we historically received were cancelled due to budget cuts.
“As we seek to serve a growing need, we are relying more on community donations.”
The pandemic has also altered the environment of the event. What was once a place to go in and select toys is now a drive-thru.
“We have moved from a warehouse shopping event to a drive-thru holiday tour that allows families to pick up activities, pantry staples and gifts from drive-thru stations,” said Zawada.
In compliance with health experts and government regulations, a number of other precautions will take place at the event, which will be held at Naylor Association Solutions, located at 5950 NW First St.
“All of our volunteers are required to wear masks the entire time,” said Frank.
“There’s going to be hand sanitizer stations set up. “We’re limiting it to three volunteers at each station, and they have to maintain social distance.”
Lacie Klann, the president-elect of the JLG, is grateful for the “very talented and dedicated committee” that has made sure family attendees will be able to select their gifts in a way that is safe for both their families and the volunteers.
“I’m so proud that the women of the Junior League pulled together to overcome all the obstacles and offer this event.”
Frank shares Klann’s sentiment. “Each time a new challenge pops up, they’re thinking creatively and outside the box, trying to figure out a way to make sure we are able to proceed with the event,” said Frank.
The pandemic, along with the consequential increase in demand for gifts, has made celebrating the 30-year anniversary of Miracle on Main Street daunting for the women, who are more focused on making the event a success than the milestone, which also includes the 85th anniversary of the JLG.
Jhanna Gilbert, president of the JLG, said, “Celebrations in 2020 look different.
“We are celebrating making incredible impact during incredible times.”
Klann welcomes all members of the Gainesville community to help the nonprofit continue fulfilling its missions, which include reducing food insecurity in Alachua County and promoting diversity, equity and inclusion within itself.
Donations to the JLG are tax-deductible. If community members would like to help, they can reach the nonprofit at email@example.com.
As Miracle on Main Street continues to reach new heights, Frank reflects on the growth, and future growth, of the JLG, which she has been a part of since 2015.
“I would love to see our community know more about our organization and help us do more each year.”