ANTIGO — Katie Clay takes the familiar concept of paying it forward to a totally new level. Two decades ago, Clay, then 16, was the focus of a Compass article focusing on her work to provide Christmas gifts to the needy through her new Giving Tree program.
She’s still at it, with the program now expanded to 46 trees scattered throughout Langlade County, with cash and donations expected to top the $20,000 mark this year.
“The first year, we helped maybe two families and the second, maybe 10,” Clay said. “I never expected it to grow like this. It’s been amazing.”
The Giving Tree’s inception dates to when Clay was 12 years old. Christmas that year was shaping up as rather grim for her struggling family until the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, who operate the community’s hospital, arranged to have another family “adopt” them for the holidays, assuring it was a happy one.
“The next year, my brothers and I took money of our own, which we had made baby-sitting and doing other chores, talked to the Sisters, and helped another family,” she said.
She hasn’t looked back.
By the time the program was a few years old, Msgr. Paul Koszarek at St. Hyacinth Parish, her home parish, convinced her to tell her story to The Compass.
“I really didn’t want to do it,” she admitted. “I never wanted to be in the limelight. That’s not why I do this.”
The move from teenager to adult, and changing responsibilities, would have brought a halt to most holiday efforts, regardless of their value, but it only spurred Clay forward.
She expanded her program from St. Hyacinth Parish, where it was serving upwards of 100 youngsters, to the entire community—first focusing on Antigo and now on all of Langlade County through outlets in Elcho and Phlox.
“There is no child who should go without Christmas because of their circumstances in the world,” Clay explained, stressing that while it is important to understand the true meaning of Christmas rather than the commercial aspect, “kids need something to look forward to.”
Clay gets the names of needy children from various sources, prepares tags, and places them on small Christmas trees which she distributes through the area.
Respondents take a tag from a tree, buy a gift for the child whose name it contains, and then return the present to the business or church where the tree is located. Those gifts are augmented by items Clay purchases through cash donations and events such as a recent baked potato luncheon, which earned $1,100, an upcoming spaghetti dinner and three weekend drives at the local Walmart in conjunction with the Salvation Army, another robust fundraiser. (Those interested in making a donation are invited to contact her by email at [email protected]).
“In 2014, we had over $11,000 in fundraisers and donations,” Clay said. “When you add the gifts and donations, I would say our total is at least double that.”
Clay, who has a family and full-time job, can’t do it alone. She relies on a cadre of friends and family, including some Giving Tree recipients.
“I know a lot of families who have gotten help through the Giving Tree,” she said. “We encourage them to pay it forward through volunteering their time back. We know they can’t give money but they can give time, either for one of our events or as a Salvation Army bell ringer.”
In mid-December, the donations and gifts are tallied, sorted and distributed to the various agencies for distribution. This year, Clay hopes to help 284 families, representing 718 children, have a merrier Christmas.
“Every year it has grown more and more,” she said. “When it comes to Christmas, some people just don’t have anything extra for Christmas. People are very generous but the need never goes away.”
Growing up, Clay said she learned the value of faith from her parents and grandparents and her parish, St. Hyacinth, and it continues to play an important role in her life.
“Many years, we get new families at the last minute and there are not enough gifts or funds to go round,” she said. “But whenever there is a last-minute need, there is a last minute donor. God always provides.”