While many Rogue Valley residents descended on local stores for bulk socks, discounted electronics and popular "door busters" Friday, one of Santa's more devoted helpers calmly mapped local toy aisles with the goal of filling as many carts as she could with toys and games for the children of total strangers.
Kathy Greager, founder of Lightly Loved Toys, is in the middle of her 15th year providing Christmas to the community's neediest families.
Distributing toys to more than 1,300 children in 2015, Greager says it's hard to gauge demand each year, but faith and optimism somehow ensure she ends up with exactly as much as she needs.
Each season is both more demanding and more rewarding than the year before, she says. Thursday and Friday sales found Greager with limited donations in hand, maneuvering through heavy crowds at Walmart.
Passing shoppers vying for appliances and game systems, Greager rushed toward a display of popular Monster High dolls that usually retail for $10 and $15. Greager scored four dolls for $5 each.
"I thought I was going to get mobbed when I was trying to grab the dolls. I only ended up with four, but with the limited amount of funds that we have, even this amount of a deal is double the presents we can provide," she says.
Quick to note she's on a tight budget like the families she serves, Greager credits her bargain hunting and networking skills for her ability to help other families. The mother of two founded Lightly Loved Toys out of a simple effort one year in an attempt to teach her kids about giving.
Greager and her children cleaned out their toys, encouraged a handful of other families to do the same, and struck out in search of families who needed toys.
"My daughter was in Head Start at the time, so I asked my family advocate if perhaps someone could use them since Christmas was coming up. We gathered more toys and managed to put together boxes for 35 children that year," Greager recalls.
"Every year I would think, 'That was nice, but I'm glad it's over.' I would swear I wasn't going to do it again, but by January I was thinking of things to make it better and figuring out ways to do more."
Over the years, the system evolved from creating boxes for each child who signed up to eventually having enough space, donated by New Song Church, to allow parents to "shop" for gifts their children would most want.
Residents who host the Cherry Lane holiday light display collect toys from visitors and a Facebook page broadcasts specific needs for toys and volunteers. Greager says the effort has grown steadily each year, peaking at 1,700 during a year when other toy programs weren't offered simultaneously.
Medford resident Sarah Felder, a longtime volunteer and previous program recipient, called the program "deeply needed."
"Most of the people who come in would not be able to give their kids a Christmas without our help. It is very humbling to be able to provide the families with gifts for their children and to be able to pray with them. It is truly a blessing," Felder said.
"I personally have gotten help from the program after my husband got sick and passed away. For a few years, my kids would have had no gifts under the tree if it was not for Kathy and Lightly Loved Toys."
Connor Greager, Greager's 17-year-old son, says he has grown up testing used toys and watching his mom provide Christmas for needy families.
"It has definitely had its ups and downs, but overall it feels great to know that what she does makes such a difference in kids lives," Connor says.
"Ever since I was a kid, I have tested a lot of the used toys, which was my favorite part of it, but overall I am just glad that my mom is able to make kids happy by doing this and I am very proud of her."
Greager runs the organization year-round to have enough toys for the three-week distribution at Christmastime. She says faith and optimism play a role in pulling it all off and keeping it going.
"Somehow, every year, when I think we won't have enough, something comes through at the last minute and it's exactly what we need," she says. "I went shopping Thursday and spent every penny I had for Black Friday. A few hours later somebody came and handed me a $500 check.
"Thinking about the families we serve keeps me going. I remember a mother, one year, whose children would write letters to Santa every year but they had never had a tree before, never had any money and there were never any presents.
"It was really sad because her kids had stopped writing letters to Santa. When she found out we were going to help, she told her children they could write to Santa. She told them they could write their letters because Santa was coming."
For donation and distribution information, call 541-774-9499 or see www.facebook.com/Lightly-Loved-toys-142190602465084.
To donate, see www.newsongmedford.com/giving/ and click the drop down menu for Lightly Loved Toys.
— Reach Medford freelance writer Buffy Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org.