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