More than 3,000 kids in Natrona County got to have Christmas thanks to the Casper community coming together.

2020 had, after all, been a whirlwind of a year due to the pandemic. With that came a series of various other unfortunate events, not the least of which was an economic downturn that led many people to a sense of financial insecurity.

This was in addition to the normal setbacks and hardships that plague many during the holiday season. For these reasons and more, Stuff the Van exists to provide some semblance of normalcy to families across Natrona County.

And they’ve been doing it for 23 years.

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Stuff the Van was created in 1998, simply as a way to provide Christmas gifts to families who may not otherwise have anything. It has grown each year, thanks to the generosity of the community. For almost a week, various volunteers set up shop outside of the local Walmart and collect unwrapped toys and clothes for children of all ages.

What started as a goodwill emergency gesture 20 years ago has grown into a nearly week-long movement to provide Christmas to Natrona County residents.

“I moved here in 1998,” said Donovan Short, the Director of Content for Townsquare Media. “It was my first Christmas here and I got a call from a local agency that had a shortage of gifts at Christmas. I think we ended up going out for about four or five hours and just kind of put the word out. That’s actually where ‘Stuff the Van’ came from. All we had were vans at the time and we filled a couple of them full of toys. It was so down to the wire that there were literally DJ’s running in the back door with stuff as families were waiting in the front. They came in not knowing if they were going to have Christmas taken care of for their kids.”

That was the first year. It was chaotic. It was stressful. But it was worth it.

“It made a big impact on us,” Short said. “And it’s one of those things that kind of inspired doing more. When you’ve got a generous community like this, it’s easy to do more and more. We’ve grown this program to the point that it’s serving 2,000 or more kids on a good year. With this year, especially, it's like nothing we’ve ever seen. You’re talking 3,000 kids and growing.”

COVID-19 has had a big impact on almost every aspect of daily life. It not only affected Christmas for thousands of Natrona County residents; it also affected school, jobs and, most especially, meals.

Because of this, Stuff the Van was about more than just Barbies and Batman and this year. In fact, it has been every year since its inception. But this year, especially, the people behind the scenes wanted to ensure that bellies were just as full as hearts.

Jamie Purcell is the Executive Director of the Wyoming Food for Thought Project, a non-profit organization designed to provide, educate, and empower residents of Natrona County and beyond, through involvement of food. Per their website, “Food for Thought seeks to work toward ending hunger as part of an overall community effort to alleviate poverty, through providing food accessibility resources, educating through workshops and classes, and empowering through SNAP, Double Up Food Bucks, and more.”

Food for Thought is also a huge partner of Stuff the Van, and they have been since 2013. Like the gifts themselves, what started as a small gesture quickly turned into a massive undertaking.

“When we started Food for Thought and we started doing a weekend food bag program, we knew that there were about 3,000 kids in Natrona County who were suffering from food insecurity,” Purcell stated. “When we started partnering with Stuff the Van, we were distributing about 200 food boxes, That’s what we did that first Christmas in 2013. This year, we did 1,200. It’s just kind of mind-boggling that we’ve grown that much and, at the same time, it’s wonderful that we’ve grown that much because we’re serving that many kids in need.”

This year, the families involved in Stuff the Van are served by the Wyoming Food for Thought Project, the Casper Housing Authority, the Boys & Girls Club, the Child Development Center, and Head Start. There were over 3,000 kids on the Christmas Wish List and, even though this year was even more of a struggle than years past, Stuff the Van was still able to serve all of them, thanks to the support from the community, as well as a few larger donations from new residents.

“I definitely didn’t have Jeffree Star on my bingo card for 2020, but he gave us a $25,000 contribution," Short stated. "We got an anonymous $10,000 contribution right after that. Jonah Bank came in with $7,500 and we just keep hearing from our business community. But, as nice as those checks are, everybody can’t write those. We’ve been doing this the past 23 years, $5 or $10 or $20 bucks at a time and that means just as much. The most amazing thing of all about this is that not a year goes by where you don’t have somebody visit that was a past beneficiary who is now back on their feet. They know what it felt like and how important it was to them, and they pay it forward. It’s individuals helping individuals.”

One of the individuals who is integral to the process of Stuff the Van is Nicole Arner, one of the program directors for the Boys & Girls Club.

“I’m actually a club kid,” Arner revealed. “I was a club member from the age of six and I came from a single-parent home. Christmas was made possible through the Boys & Girls Club when I was a kid so, to me, it’s huge to be able to have a hand in this. It’s big. The moments are huge. I mean, just knowing that a kid gets at least one gift at Christmas is so important.”

Once the presents are all gathered, they’re delivered to the Boys & Girls Club, where countless volunteers sort through them and label them based on age and sex. There is a section for young girls that includes dolls. There’s one for little boys that have Batman toys. Teenagers get their own section as well. It’s a well-oiled machine that is only possible, yet again, thanks to the volunteers who put it together. Arner said it’s important to maintain the dignity of parents as they come through the line.

“We really try to allow the parents to shop for items so that we can keep their dignity intact,” she said. “And I think that’s impactful for them, too, because by the time they’re reaching out for help, they’re usually at the end of their rope. Maybe they thought they could afford to buy Christmas presents on their own, but then payday came and they had to choose between gifts for their kids or paying to keep the lights on. That’s a huge thing for them to have to overcome.”

Melissa is one of those parents. She has been participating in Stuff the Van for the past few years because, as a mom of six children, priorities focus less on Barbie dolls and more on keeping a roof over her children’s heads and food in their tummies. For Melissa, Stuff the Van is the difference between having a Christmas or not.

“As a parent, it means a lot,” she said with tears in her eyes. “You struggle to try and give your kids everything and then, when you can’t give them something on Christmas, it breaks your heart. To be able to have an opportunity to get that, and then you don’t have to feel like a bad parent, it’s amazing. It’s a great feeling.”

Utilizing the Stuff the Van program isn’t about being “a bad parent.” In fact, having to decide between food, clothes and other costs or gifts on Christmas morning is one of the hardest, strongest things a parent would ever have to do. Stuff the Van is a resource for the community, from the community. It’s another way to remind each other that, as cliché as it has become this year, we really are all in this together. It’s a village taking care of itself, that’s all.

“I quit doubting this community many, many years ago,” Short laughed. “We step up every year and make our ask a little bigger. And there’s not been a year that we haven’t met a goal. When we started this year at 3,000-plus, we knew it was going to be an uphill climb. And if there has ever been a year that’s tough to give, I know it’s this one. But our community still came through.”

Melissa said that Stuff the Van is “a huge stress relief” for parents who have to make tough decisions. In a year that has been chaotic and disheartening in many cases, it’s easy to become hard, embittered, cynical. But when one looks across a room that is filled with clothes, toys, food and, most importantly, the people who provided all those things, faith is restored. Santa Claus may not be real, but the spirit of Christmas, the magic that Santa embodies, has never felt more real than it does this year.

“The biggest thank you I could muster would still not be adequate,” Short said. “You go back 23 years, and I would love to see all of those years stacked up in a pile so that everybody could see it from our eyes. Oftentimes, when you give something, it just kind of goes into the vapors and you don’t know where it goes from there. But if you could see it from the other end, if you could see it with our eyes, where it goes and how it impacts people, it’s pretty special.”

Stuff the Van shouldn’t have been as successful as it was this year. If ever there was a year where giving might have been a little harder, it was 2020. But that’s just simply not how things work in Natrona County. Whether it’s giving a toy, a meal, or even a smile and an encouraging word, our community continues to surpass any and every expectation. For those involved with Stuff the Van, the real gift at Christmas time is seeing the community come together and take care of our own. That’s the important thing. That’s the magic. That, in essence, is Christmas.

News Director's Note: Townsquare Media owns K2 Radio News. 

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