UNION COUNTY, NJ — The YWCA of Union County is already gearing up for Christmas with their annual Project North Pole initiative.
The North Pole Shops simulate a free-of-charge, holiday “shopping” experience for the women in YWCA’s programs, helping to relieve some of the financial burden of the holiday season.
The YWCA helps victims of domestic violence, offering a range of services including a women’s shelter, counseling and case management, legal response teams and child protective services.
Women who visit the North Pole Shops are invited to select gifts for their children and a gift for themselves as they “shop” in a safe environment.
According to Jennifer Vriens, director of development and marketing for YWCA, the experience is empowering to survivors due to the financial abuse they have endured. “The holidays are a really stressful time for the victims of domestic violence, especially if they’ve been uprooted,” Vriens told LocalSource in a phone call. “What we’re trying to do is normalize the holidays for them.”
According to Vriens, the project, in its seventh year, has morphed over time, and has become the highlight of the holiday season for many. “We create a shopping experience,” Vriens said. “We want to empower the women, to give them what they normally would have done, which is to go shopping.”
The shops are set up in the organization’s outreach center, as well as in the women’s shelter to make it more convenient for both residential and non-residential clients.
Volunteers converge on both locations, said Vriens, to help decorate and organize, and by the time they’re done, the North Pole Shops look something akin to a Toys “R” Us. “This empowers these women to have a holiday for the kids,” said Vriens. “We allocate a certain spot that is organized by age group. It’s just like Toys ‘R’ Us, only they don’t have to pay.”
All donated gifts are brand new, and once the women have finished “shopping,” the YWCA provides them with all materials needed for wrapping the gifts. “The YWCA provides the wrapping paper and bows,” said Vriens. “They get the whole experience.”
One of the generous sponsors of the project is AristaCare at Norwood Terrace, a nursing and rehabilitation facility located in Plainfield. Amanda Gaynor, director of marketing and physician liaison at the facility, told LocalSource the response from employees was immediate. “AristaCare at Norwood Terrace is delighted to have the opportunity to sponsor donations for Project North Pole,” Gaynor said in an email. “Last year was our first time participating in this event, and we saw the immediate impact it had on both our own employees and hospital affiliates — the response was overwhelming. Being in partnership with Project North Pole, and bringing a small measure of joy to families in need during the holiday season, is certainly its own reward.”
Besides having the women “shop” for their children, the organizations also has the kids shop for their moms. “We have gifts for the kids and the moms. We want them to have something special, too.”
Some past gifts for moms have included fragrances from Victoria’s Secret, as well as sundries from Bath and Body Works.
Janice Lilien, executive director at the YWCA, said the project helps make universal messages of holiday joy tangible for the organization’s clients. “At this time of the year, all the messages we hear are about joy, gift giving and celebrating,” Lilien told LocalSource. “Yet the families we serve are struggling with trauma, displacement and meeting basic needs such as food and housing.
Project North Pole provides our families the ability to give and receive gifts and celebrate the holidays just as everyone else does — and have a time of happiness even amidst their challenging circumstances.”
Vriens said the community has responded to the initiative with enthusiasm. “The community response has been great,” said Vriens. “It’s been amazing. A lot of folks call up and say, ‘What can I do?’”
Last year, said Vriens, the “shops” drew more than 100 women who use YWCA’s services.
Individuals, businesses, organizations and faith communities have, according to Vriens, responded generously to the call by donating a variety of gifts for the project. “Women so appreciate this,” she said. “They can’t afford gifts, and this way kids are getting the holiday experience. It’s just amazing to watch these women be empowered — to see them feel special. It’s an incredibly hard thing they’re going through emotionally, physically and financially.”
The “shops” will be open for two weeks prior to the holidays.
Donations are currently being accepted for Project North Pole. New, unwrapped gifts for moms, teens and children are appreciated, as well as large gift bags, tape and wrapping paper.
For more information on Project North Pole, those interested can email Vriens at firstname.lastname@example.org.