NORTH ST PAUL, Minnesota — In Rachel Thompson's front yard in North St. Paul, a Christmas tree is already set up with ornaments and lights. But among the decorations, the tree is covered in paper tags holding holiday wishes.
For example, a 7-year-old boy is hoping for a monster truck. A 4-year-old boy wants anything related to dinosaurs. Many other kids are requesting Pokémon cards. Those are the tags that make Thompson happy.
But other tags have brought tears to her eyes. A nine-year-old girl needs clothes, shoes and underwear. Another family is requesting new plates and a microwave. Other families are in need of diapers.
"I do get emotional," Thompson said. "It's amazing the things we take for granted."
Thompson started the North St. Paul Christmas Tree Project in 2020. But her inspiration for the project came at the start of the pandemic when Thompson opened a Little Free Food Shelf in her front yard.
"It just kind of blew up. People from the community were dropping things off all day long," Thompson recalled.
After that project ended, Thompson wanted to do something for the holidays. She saw something on Instagram about a community Christmas tree.
"When COVID first started, there were no giving trees, there were no angel trees, Walmart wasn't putting anything up but people still wanted to give. So I made this up as a way for our community members to help our community," Thompson said.
In its first two years, the NSP Christmas Tree Project raised about $20,000 dollars and helped 50 families.
This year, Thompson has already chosen 13 families who live in either North St. Paul, Maplewood or Oakdale.
"People want to know, how do I vet the people who come and ask for help? I don't do that. I put trust in people the same as I believe people put trust in me that I'm not going to misuse the money they give me. I guarantee that this all goes back to my community," said Thompson, who works in the legal department for Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare.
In 2020, Thompson received a lot of requests for basic necessities. In 2021, there were more requests for toys, video games, etc. In 2022, families have been dealing with inflation and the end of programs that provided aid during the pandemic.
"We're back to diapers; we're back to underwear; we're back to, 'We need food for the holiday,'" Thompson said.
Every year there is a family that especially touches Thompson's heart. This year, a family only requested the basics for their 13-year-old son.
"Every single item was pajamas, shoes, socks and underwear and I wrote back and I'm like, 'Of course these will be granted, regardless, but I need to know what toys you want,'" Thompson said.
The 13-year-old requested gum.
"That wasn't good enough for me so I changed his request to a gumball machine. So that's probably my favorite wish," Thompson said.
Families will receive their gifts from city hall on December 17.
"The most joy I get out of this is seeing my community come together," Thompson said. "This is a community of givers. Everybody steps up. Every time I ask for anything, they come together."
How you can help
Those who want to help can stop by Thompson's tree at 2727 9th Ave E in North St. Paul. All you have to do is pick out a tag, buy the requested gift item, wrap the present and bring it back to Thompson's home. Please tape the tag you take on the gift so Thompson can keep track of which gifts have been fulfilled.
Gifts can be dropped off every Saturday or Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The last day to drop off a gift will be December 11.
Any gift cards or monetary donations will be used to buy any leftover requested gifts or gift cards for gas, groceries, local businesses/restaurants that will be split evenly between families.
Those who want to financially contribute, can Venmo: @Rachel-Thompson-122.
No gifts, gift cards or cash are ever kept at Thompson's home. Instead, she takes them off-site daily.
You can reach Thompson at NSPChristmasTreeProject@gmail.com.
Thompson will have a hot chocolate and cookie bar on November 25 starting at 10 a.m. for anyone who wants to grab a tag, drop off gifts, or say hello.
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