It all started with a dream of bringing Christmas to families in need. Making Spirits Bright, the gift-giving organization birthed from this dream in March 2014, took its inspiration from a friend and cofounder, said Making Spirits Bright and The Goodness Initiative Founder, Jamie Buss. “My friend, who was unable to continue with the organization, read a news story about this gentleman who threw a Christmas party every year at a local women’s shelter in Syracuse and gave gifts to the women and their children. It inspired us.” Jamie explained that she and her friend took this idea, adapted it and embellished it, making it their own. “It snowballed from there. The first year, we helped 13 families, the second 41, the third 51 and this past year, we helped 52 families.”

        Participating families, which are selected with the help of social workers, school administrators and mental health staff and others, are equally divided between the Webster and Rochester areas. Each family member requests four items they need and three items they want. Need items include such things as warm winter clothing like hats, coats, boots, hygiene products, toilet paper, toothpaste, bedding, necessities for the home. Want items are items like toys, watches, perfume, robes, small appliances. “A lot of our families reach out for furniture,” said Buss. “One of our families had no furniture in their home for the past three years, so we reached out to the community for gently used furniture, including beds, chairs, a table, a sofa. The family received furniture that year. Our community is so generous.”

        In 2018, Making Spirits Bright hit its stride. “Last year, we ‘arrived’ within the Webster community, police, FD, ambulance were all involved, and our reach extended a lot further,” said Buss. “Businesses and families as well as community members adopt families and fill their Christmas lists. 30 families were adopted outright. The remaining families and individuals are placed onto our Community List so that people can adopt a family, a person or purchase an individual item for someone on the list.” Buss explains that all of the gifts are dropped off at her own home and the home of one of the other group members. Afterwards, the group holds a community wrapping party. Last year, they wrapped an astounding 1,600-1,700 gifts. “We brought them to one of the local schools, invite the community to join in and wrap them in the span of two hours,” said Buss, stating that the gifts are then delivered the following week.

       Even with so much good already being done, leaders Jamie Buss, Colleen Bedford and Jeanette Wittmeyer have an even greater vision in mind. “Last year we applied for nonprofit status under the name The Goodness Initiative,” said Buss. “We all have kids, and we feel that, aside from religious youth groups and school projects, there are not many great ways for kids to get involved with giving back to their communities. So, we founded the Youth Volunteer Network.” Buss describes this network as very youth-led. She explains that, while there are adult supervisors for support, direction and assistance as needed, it is the youth that decide what the projects are, the steps they must take to meet the needs they see and how to gain the support and resources they need. Buss states that kids build a variety of skills: social, leadership, financial literacy, teamwork. They also develop a sense of civic responsibility and a habit of giving back to their community. These skills and qualities are useful in college, in the community and in the workplace.

       This year, the Youth Volunteer Network (YVN) will take flight. “Each of us three leaders will head up a YVN group,” stated Buss. “Each group will include teens and preteens. We will help them get things going and give them a list of resources. Then, it’s up to them to take true ownership of what they are doing. So many decisions are made for them, but not here. We provide the template, but they are responsible to build on it. Successes and setbacks, they are always learning.” Buss explained that even though this network is youth-led, they are hoping to provide access to families so that they will join, contribute and become involved. “Today’s society is increasingly busy, and this busyness can be a detriment to engaging our kids,” said Buss. “The YVN will take a lot of hard work. Commitment from families, whether once a week or once a month, will help kids see its value. Let’s keep these kids engaged, not push them aside. We so often have to say ‘no,’ to them; let’s find a way to say, ‘yes.’”

      Much like their spirits, the future looks bright. “We hope to develop into the kind of nonprofit in which every community member is able to give what they can when they can,” said Buss. “We have reached a pivotal moment in our history. Our Making Spirits Bright Program has grown every year, and now we need more space to store our gifts and build on what we have. We would also like to start a backpack program going, gathering school supplies for children in need. We plan to invest in YVN, reaching the younger generation and changing one kid at a time” Buss also sees a future beyond their own borders. “All we are doing is providing a template,” she added. “We hope that other people just take off with this concept and run with it.”

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