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North Bay Spirit Award winners give Christmas trees to families hit hardest by fires, virus

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

Tory Crowder doesn’t waste any time putting up her Christmas tree. Two days after Thanksgiving this year, she and her family of three headed to a tree lot to select a beauty for their Windsor home. Then the magic began as they decorated it to perfection.

There are actually five trees of varying sizes spreading Christmas cheer at their home, each one special and meaningful. “We obviously love Christmas,” said Crowder, 35, who works full time as director of marketing and sales at a Dry Creek Valley winery.

Even during a rough year marked by the heartache of the coronavirus pandemic, a Christmas tree can be transformative, she believes. “The second we put up our Christmas tree, a whole new light was shed on me for this year.”

That glow is something she wants to see across her community, with twinkling lights decorating Christmas trees in numerous homes. She’s on her way to make that happen.

Rather than buy Christmas gifts for one another this year, Crowder and her husband, Jesse, decided to do something with a far greater impact. They vowed to purchase fresh-cut trees for those unable to afford them. The response has been so overwhelming that a few days ago, her effort was granted status as a nonprofit organization.

When the couple bought their own 7-foot, $160 Christmas tree, there was some sticker shock. Jesse Crowder recalls wondering, “how families can even afford trees these days.” They “really wanted to make sure families could have the chance to be able to get a tree for Christmas,” he said.

What they didn’t expect was the huge need and an outpouring of help they encountered. Crowder, with support from her husband, has turned a personal effort into a communitywide campaign dubbed Operation Christmas Tree. So far, donated trees are shining bright almost 200 homes, with a wait list of nearly 40 more. The trees, almost all Noble firs, stand at least 6 feet high.

“There are people right here in our neighborhood going through hard times,” Crowder said. “These are normal people who were not struggling 10 months ago and now they’re drowning.” There are job losses due to the pandemic; parents who’ve had to take leaves to stay home with their kids who are distance learning due to school closures; losses from North Bay wildfires; illnesses and medical setbacks; separations and divorces.

“The pandemic has only hurt their situation and made it worse,” she said.

For her efforts to bring Christmas trees to Sonoma County families in need, Crowder is this month’s North Bay Spirit Award recipient. A partnership of The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU, the program puts the spotlight on volunteers working to aid their community and showcases the importance of lending a helping hand.

Winners dedicate countless hours to their projects; many of them have established nonprofit organizations to further their efforts. The award encourages volunteerism and highlights efforts to fill important community needs.

Cherie Simpson of Santa Rosa isn’t surprised by Crowder’s selection. “She’s always wanted to give and help other people. She’s very generous and has always been that way,” Simpson said. The Crowders’ daughter, Grace, 7, attends school with Simpson’s 8-year-old daughter, Auvrey. “I’ve known Tory many years. I would totally expect this of her.”

Simpson is among some 190 donors and 45 volunteers who’ve stepped up to help with Operation Christmas Tree. Although the effort started as a way to bring Christmas trees to local homes, it quickly expanded. Crowder discovered the need for Christmas dinners as well, plus gifts to go under many of those trees.

Outpouring of support, need

Crowder initially posted on Facebook, asking if anyone was struggling or knew of someone who was and offered to buy and deliver Christmas trees to them. The couple budgeted $1,000 for their effort, anticipating a response from five or 10 people.

Crowder didn’t expect an avalanche of inquiries and requests. What started on her personal Facebook page and a Windsor community page on Thanksgiving weekend quickly bounced across the Internet. “People shared it and shared it,” she said.

The need expanded from Windsor and Healdsburg south to Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Petaluma and Sonoma; help even extended to Willits for a formerly homeless family that recently secured housing. For every request for a tree, there have been cash donations, offers to “adopt” families to supply them with Christmas gifts and holiday dinners and people donating time to recruit donations and match donors with those in need. Sponsors are providing gifts for 46 households and meals for 49 families.

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

Simpson, a single mother who works as a parent educator at a Windsor elementary school, teamed up with her mother, Jennifer Myles of Santa Rosa, to provide a family with a Christmas dinner from Oliver’s. She’s also doing “whatever I can with just my time,” recently wrapping gifts with Crowder into the wee hours of the night. Volunteering “gives you a really warm and good feeling inside,” Simpson said.

Those efforts are making a world of difference, said Sara Gonzales, who works as an overnight staff member and Aftercare program co-facilitator at Women’s Recovery Services in Santa Rosa. The residential treatment program helps pregnant and parenting women break the cycle of substance dependence.

The nonprofit runs three homes, where this holiday season 20 women, six infants and six children under age 10 are residing. Crowder reached out to Gonzales and provided three trees, complete with stands, lights, ornaments and tree toppers.

Some of the children “haven’t had a Christmas tree at all,” Gonzales said. Their mothers, now clean and sober, “are finally having a real Christmas with them.” When Gonzales delivered the trees to the residences, children “were just so happy and jumping up and down.” She made the deliveries on behalf of the Crowders, as residence locations are confidential.

The response “gave me the chills,” Gonzales said. “It’s a great feeling and a huge help. It’s life-changing with any kind of gift. It’s definitely life-changing for these kids.”

Crowder said it’s impossible not to be affected by the numerous stories of hardship and resilience she’s heard through Operation Christmas Tree. One mother took a leave from her job to care for her 24-year-old daughter, who’s undergoing chemotherapy in a battle against cancer. They received a tree and everything needed to decorate it. Another woman, a grandmother of nine, was excited to put up a Christmas tree after going without for several years after the death of her partner of more than 30 years.

Crowder knows well how life can throw unexpected punches. Six years ago she was bitten by a tick and contracted Lyme disease. Misdiagnosed with ringworm, she collapsed six months later in a San Diego hotel room. It took six more months before she received her diagnosis.

She suffered heart and neurological setbacks and had to leave her job, putting pressure on the family’s budget. Crowder admitted there were moments of resentment and despair. The family moved in for three years with her father, Dave Puentes, who helped care for Grace, a toddler at the time.

In retrospect, “I’m actually thankful that happened to me. It changed a lot of things for me,” she said. “Usually there’s a time in your life when something s----y happens and changes your life (for the better).”

Spirit of giving

Crowder, a graduate of Santa Rosa Junior College, credits her extended family with providing a foundation of compassion. Her mother and stepfather live in England, and she and her older brother were raised in Rohnert Park by their father. “He struggled, but he still gave back,” she said. He’s also helping out with Operation Christmas Tree, as is her father-in-law, Todd Crowder.

“I grew up in a home and family who have committed their lives to giving back to the community. My whole family is like that,” Crowder said. When her grandmother, Anna Puentes, died earlier this year, she left behind tiny crocheted afghans she’d been making for hospitalized premature newborns.

Crowder was raised to celebrate her birthday without having friends bring party gifts. “My dad did that for us. He didn’t want the pressure on those families.” She does the same with her daughter, giving partygoers the option to donate to a charity of Grace’s choice. Recipients have included Dogma Animal Rescue, where the Crowders adopted their dog, a Yorkie mix named Nala.

Grace is charitable like her parents. The first grader spent $130 of her own money to purchase a bald American Girl doll she named Faith to present as a companion to a beloved family member undergoing chemotherapy.

Jesse Crowder, 35, also is altruistic. Even though he works long days out of town as a superintendent for Westwind Construction, he’s dedicated his free time to picking up and delivering trees. About 95% of the recipients don’t have tree stands or decorations, so those items are provided as well.

Jesse Crowder grew up in west county and took a job at a local Christmas tree farm as an adolescent so he could help his family cover the expense of a fresh-cut tree. “He was kind of like a Christmas tree guy back in the day,” his wife said.

She said attending a leadership conference offered through her employer, Truett Hurst in Healdsburg, helped prepare her for the Christmas tree project. The winery owners are known for their philanthropy, too, and have donated to Operation Christmas Tree. “My whole life I literally have been surrounded by people like this,” Crowder said.

Jesse Crowder said his wife “truly has a heart of gold” and is “the most giving person I know.” She’s genuine and sincere in all her efforts. “The great thing about it is she does it because she wants to and never expects anything in return.”

The Crowders are grateful to the numerous people who’ve supported Operation Christmas Tree. A trio of volunteers has been instrumental, Tory Crowder said. Jamie Koop, Tina Tamayo and Tammy Berry “have done a lot to help me,” from spreading the word and making connections at tree lots and farms to donating money, gifts and holiday dinners and finding others to do the same.

“Giving is contagious,” Crowder said.

Berry said a private, 24-member local Facebook chat group dedicated to paying it forward has responded to the call for help. Within 30 minutes of one post, donors pledged $500. “It’s really about networking and bringing everyone together to help one another,” she said. “It’s just the trickle (-down) effect.”

Berry, a Windsor mother of three who does bookkeeping for her family’s two Santa Rosa businesses, is inspired by the Crowders’ efforts and the community’s response. She’s donated cash and plans to bring Christmas Eve prime rib dinners to several families.

“Tory is an amazing person. She’s selfless and loving and warm. Tory fully, fully, fully deserves this award,” she said. Operation Christmas Tree “is Christmas magic at its finest.”

Crowder, who’s taken several days off from work for the project, said she’s been humbled by the community rallying together. She’s worked with Mark Lazzini of Mark’s Christmas Tree Lot on Santa Rosa Avenue, where three patrons made donations totaling $1,200 to help shoppers in need. That money was then gifted to Crowder to purchase trees. “Of course I started to cry,” she said.

Lazzini credits a sense of giving that started with a 91-year-old customer who chose a tree and then gave Lazzini $500, directing him to “do something good with it.” Another customer donated $200, another $500. “These are my customers, people caring about the community,” Lazzini said.

He said fresh-cut trees cost from $30 to $200, and most average $80. Lazzini, who also provided Christmas trees following the 2017 North Bay wildfires, is happy to support Crowder’s efforts. He’s among those who’ve offered to help next year as well.

While a more formal process may be implemented in 2021, this year trees are provided on an honor system. “You’re the one who has to sleep at night if you got a tree and didn’t need it and took it from someone in need,” she said.

Crowder wonders how a decision to forgo Christmas presents has somehow rewarded the couple with countless gifts. “This work feeds my soul,” she said. “My husband and I agree to never buy gifts for each other again. This is our Christmas.”

For more information or to make a donation, visit Operation Christmas Tree’s GoFundMe page at bit.ly/2LvaYyT or mail checks to Operation Christmas Tree, P.O. Box 1395, Windsor, CA 95492.

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