Leslie Egan and Ruby Tillson made their way around the room, checking out gifts on display.
They had lots of shopping to do for the children in their charge.
Egan is a single parent raising three grandchildren — ages 10, 12 and 14.
Tillson is raising a 12-year-old great-niece and two stepsons, ages 8 and 11.
Both women were shopping earlier this month in the “Imagine Christmas” store, operated by Life Church, at 6224 Old Pasco Road in Wesley Chapel.
The women were able to select three gifts for each child, with each child receiving at least one gift valued at $25 to $30, and the other two valued at $15 to $20.
There were lots of presents to choose from, from tables laden with stuffed animals, educational toys, cosmetic kits, dolls, purses, basketballs and other items.
The women received the presents at no charge, but they’d already earned them by performing various tasks.
Imagine Christmas works this way: Participants can earn three presents per child by providing seven service hours, which Life Church refers to as Time Exchange hours.
Once a family reaches 21 Time Exchange hours, all of the children receive presents, regardless of how many children there are in the household, said Robin Granger, who coordinates Imagine Christmas.
The Time Exchange can be performed at Life Church or other churches, schools or nonprofit organizations, Granger said.
Pastor Ed Russo said Life Church wants to give people a hand-up, not a hand-out.
“We’re always looking to empower people. We’re looking to preserve their dignity,” Russo said.
This year, “Imagine Christmas” is providing presents for 232 children at Life Church’s Wesley Chapel campus and 50 kids at its Spring Hill campus.
By giving people a chance to contribute to the community, they become part of the community’s fabric, said Granger, who is the chief elf for Imagine Christmas.
Some of the gifts are donated by church members; Granger shops for others.
She also oversees the Imagine Christmas volunteers.
They do everything from validating participants’ Time Exchange hours, to serving as personal shoppers, to helping in the wrapping room and performing other chores.
Participants arriving at Imagine Christmas are invited to enjoy cookies and hot chocolate.
They also have a personal shopper, who helps them find gifts for the children on their list.
After that, the shoppers take their gifts to a wrapping room — to add a final festive touch.
Shoppers taking part said Imagine Christmas helps them to provide a brighter holiday than they could otherwise.
“It’s good. It helps out,” Tillson said.
Egan noted: “Both of us are school bus drivers. For my school district, we were off the week of Thanksgiving, so we don’t get paid that week. And then, we’re off again at Christmas through New Year’s, and we don’t get paid for that.”
Life can get challenging, especially at the holidays, Tillson said.
“It’s pretty hard when you get a paycheck and it’s gone. I only have $30 left this week. I am maxed out,” she said. “It makes me feel good that you can do something to earn stuff,” she added.
Jaquelin Easedo, another participant, also is being able to earn presents for her 3-year-old son, Nicholas, and her 18-month-daughter, Adrianna.
She doesn’t like the thought of getting something for nothing, she said, through a volunteer translator.
Imagine Christmas participants earned their Time Exchange hours in a variety of ways — pitching in at the church’s food pantry at Life Community Center, on Applewood Drive, or collecting toys from church members, or directing traffic for the church’s Thanksgiving in a Box, to name a few.
Egan and Tillson said their faith helps see them through hard times.
“When I’m down on my luck and I need that money, I always pray, ‘Please, help me get it.’ And, it always comes through,” Tillson said.
Egan added: “You know what? God always provides. Just when I don’t know how it’s going to happen, it happens.”
Some of the Imagine Christmas volunteers initially came to the church because they needed help with a water or light bill, Granger said. They did Time Exchange hours, in exchange for the church’s help.
And, then, they stayed on as volunteers, Granger said.
By contributing their time and talents, they become connected, Granger said. “They become family in the process.”
“Even if I didn’t earn presents, I would still love working at the pantry. There’s an amazing group of people here,” Egan said. “I love this church for many reasons. I just think the spirit of Jesus is in this church.”
Christina Edwards, who volunteers for Imagine Christmas” said she’s been on both the giving and receiving end at the church.
“Sometimes, it’s me being compassionate. Sometimes, it’s about — I need the fellowship. I need people to turn to. I love the community center. I love being able to go there when I’m down and I just need a friend to pick me up,” Edwards said.
“This church is my home,” she said.
Published December 25, 2019