For 36-year-old Meridythe Alie and her three siblings, giving back to the community started with the family business. Alie’s parents own and operate a jewelry store in Dover and Portsmouth, N.H., which has been in the family for over a century. When Alie and her siblings were children, the local Chamber of Commerce organized an annual holiday drive in which several businesses rallied together to raise money for a family in need.
For the last two decades, the family has collectively raised tens thousands of dollars — between $800 and $1,200 each year — to sponsor a family for the holidays.
The program was eventually discontinued after a few years, but Alie’s parents decided to continue the tradition through their business. When Alie and her siblings were old enough, their parents handed the reins over to them to help a family each Christmas.
“Sponsoring a family every year has definitely changed the way we look at the holidays, especially when we were younger,” explains Alie. “I think it has helped us put in perspective what it means to truly need versus want, and has made us appreciate everything that we have throughout the year.”
Their fundraising efforts typically begin right after Thanksgiving. They start by putting out a bucket on their counter at the jewelry store to accept donations from customers. Each of the four siblings chips in as well. Tyler, the eldest at 38, works for the local railroad service; Greg, 34, and Hilary, 29, are both business systems analysts; and Meridythe is a software developer.
The advent of online crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe, however, has allowed the family to widen their net beyond their customer base and collect donations online. So far this year, they have raised $180 toward their $1,000 fundraising goal online.
Choosing the right family
To find families to sponsor each year, the Alies contact Fran Meffen, a school counselor at nearby Dover Middle School. Meffen helps them identify a student at the school whose family might make a good candidate. Meffen then contacts the family directly to make sure they are comfortable about being sponsored. If all goes well, he collects their contract information and specific details (like the ages of their children and their interests), which he then relays to the Alies.
While there are other individuals who reach out to the guidance department at Dover Middle School to sponsor a student or two in a family, the Alies are the only ones who sponsor an entire family every year.
“It’s remarkable to have the Alies be so consistently supportive of families in our community throughout the years,” Meffen says.
Each year, the Alies choose a family with a unique story. In some cases, the parents have been recently laid off. Once, they sponsored a family who took in children whose birth parents could no longer care for them and needed help making ends meet. Other families were simply strapped for cash and didn’t have extra money for the holidays.
The funds the Alies donate has been used to purchase things like snow clothes to keep the family warm during the winter, toys for the kids, and gift cards to local grocery stores for the parents.
The siblings typically make a day out of shopping for gifts for the family, then head to their parents’ house to wrap the gifts. For a tight-knit bunch, the annual ritual is just another way to stay in touch with one another throughout the year,
“This is has been an amazing way for us to stay grounded during the holidays, has made us closer as a family, and realize just how fortunate we are,” says Meridythe.
They made the decision early on to deliver their presents in person, rather than remain anonymous. They typically accept donations until the last minute, then make the delivery the week leading up to Christmas. While the parents know the gifts are from the Alies, the name tags on the gifts include the name of the giftee, but don’t have a name of who they’re from, in case the parents want to say they’re from Santa. The recipients are always surprised, but their reactions vary from year to year.
“We’ve been met with the full spectrum of reactions, from embarrassment from being a family in need to complete astonishment,” says Meridythe. “Most of the time the families are very thankful, and there are lots of happy tears and hugs. And the appreciation we receive when we show up at their home to deliver the gifts brings tears to our eyes and melts our hearts each year.”
Saving in the family
The Alies reserve most of their holiday shopping spending for the families they sponsor. When it comes to buying one another gifts, they decided a few years ago to curb their spending on one another. A new tradition was born. Each of the grownups draws a name out of a hat and they do a Secret Santa exchange.
“For me, the holidays are not about out-buying each other, and piling up as much as you can under the tree,” says Meridythe, who has two kids of her own. “My favorite part of this time of year is just being able to spend time with my family, and talk about all of the crazy and fun times we have had over the years. We all need to stop putting so much emphasis on the material aspects of the holidays, and more on the experience.”
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