Twenty-nine years ago, Jennifer Cullbenbine had a vision.
It seemed crazy to the majority of people she shared it with. They told her it would never work, that it wasn’t a good idea.
But she pushed on and did it anyway.
Now, after nearly 3 decades in existence, the Family Giving Tree is going strong. The holiday toy drive serves 9 counties — the largest ones being Santa Clara, San Mateo, and San Francisco — and donates about 80,000 toys and gifts to children in need every holiday season.
The idea for the Family Giving Tree was inspired by an MBA class project that Cullenbine was assigned while studying at San Jose State. She was in a Creativity and Management Class, and had been placed in a group of 8 students for the project. The teacher told the class to go out and do something that adds value to someone else’s life.
“I grew up in Palo Alto. I think I was the first child on the free and reduced lunch program in Palo Alto. The school lunch ladies had never seen that card that got you the free lunch, before I showed up,” said Cullenbine, who has been a Milpitas resident for 26 years.
She attended Palo Alto High School, where they bussed in students from East Palo Alto. It was at this point when she was exposed to more diverse segments of the population, and really started to understand how in need they were.
“So I wanted to start a Giving Tree to help kids in East Palo Alto at the time. So I suggested it to the group of 8…7 of them said they didn’t think it was a good idea,” said Cullenbine. “At the end of the class, a student I didn’t know came up and said I had a really good idea. So I decided to do it anyway.”
She ended up getting a B in that class.
Now in its 29th year, the Family Giving Tree is an unstoppable force for good in our community. Over the last 2 weeks, from 9am-9pm, volunteers have shown up to organize, label, wrap, pack, and load countless gifts onto various trucks, which drive out to agencies for drop-offs. Roughly 1,000 volunteers came out each day to aid in the effort.
“We have 350 social service organizations that give us information to make cards,” said Cullenbine, who’s also known as “Queen Elf” among her colleagues. “They give us the name, age, gender, wish, and alternative wish. Then we send the wish cards to 1,000 places. Like Apple, Google, Facebook, Jamba Juice, my chiropractor, churches…Families even take a packet of cards. There are 25 in a packet. People take them, buy the gifts, and come back with them.”
Agencies that the Family Giving Tree supports include battered women shelters, homeless shelters, foster parent organizations, and mental health organizations. The wish cards are sent out on the 1st of November, and this year gifts started pouring in to the Family Giving Tree on the 7th of December.
Cullenbine, who is a natural born organizer, has her system all worked out. That’s one of the reasons why the drive runs as smoothly as it does. That, and the fact that, as Cullenbine mentions, she has some “really, really smart volunteers.”
“Jennifer’s so organized,” said one of the volunteers, who was in her first year of volunteering for the organization. “Every little aisle has its own set-up; there’s a wrapping station…it’s just amazing…She’s so systematic in her approach. It’s so fun. I would do it again. It’s so worth your time.”
Each year, the Family Giving Tree is faced with the struggle of finding the right space in which to run their 2-week operation. Since they receive and organize tens of thousands of gifts, they need a space the size of 2 Costcos. They thus usually enlist area commercial realtors to help locate something. This year, at the very last minute, they found a great warehouse space on Tasman Drive in San Jose.
Volunteers came out from everywhere — from Pleasanton to San Francisco to Danville — to lend a hand.
One family from Menlo Park was ecstatic to be involved this year: “We’ve been contributing for several years, but this is our first time volunteering,” said Melissa Malloy, who was there wrapping presents. “We really wanted to help out more, versus just giving financially.” Her husband and 16-year-old son were also there helping out.
“This year, 2,000 of the volunteers were under 13,” said Cullenbine. “The second part of my mission is to get families to be philanthropic together and volunteer their time.”
The Family Giving Tree also organizes a Back to School Drive during the year, giving 40,000 backpacks away to students. Each backpack is filled with grade-appropriate school supplies, and gets distributed in the same 9 counties they work with for the Holiday Drive. For this one, the organization works with the schools directly, as opposed to teaming up with agencies to support families.
Cullenbine was a Past President of the Milpitas Rotary Club, and still serves on the Board there. Last Monday, some of her fellow Rotarians came out to volunteer. Something about this very special vision that Cullenbine had years ago inspires and motivates people to take action; they want to be a part of something meaningful.
Operations for the drive finished up on the 23rd. However, Cullenbine noted that she expects they will continue to receive gifts; they usually get about 2,000 extra, after Christmas has passed. They generally give them directly to the agencies; some are actually late gifts that certain children have requested.
“If something’s missing before Christmas, the agency will have to give the child a substitute gift. And 2 days later, it shows up. If you get specific gifts, that’s hard,” said Cullenbine. “Like if they wanted a picture book of Africa, how can you substitute for that? We can give them a Barnes and Noble gift card, if we have one. But then the picture book of Africa will finally come in, and then you have another problem — who do you give it to? You can’t give it to a kid who asks for Barbie.”
Despite any minor bumps along the way, Cullenbine’s vision, her baby, sets off a momentum that one can’t help but notice — and even want to be a part of. It’s organizations like this — and people like Cullenbine — who make Milpitas an amazing place to live.
Go here to learn more about the Family Giving Tree: https://familygivingtree.org/