BUCKLEY — Christmas was canceled.
Well, Project Christmas was canceled — and that put Christmas in jeopardy for many.
The charitable effort out of Cadillac that helps bring the holiday spirit as well as presents, food, clothing and other items to needy families and children in Wexford and Missaukee counties became a Christmas casualty of COVID-19. The restrictions and financial hardships shut down the project for 2020.
But the need did not go away. The need only grew bigger and wider as the pandemic did the same.
So the people of Buckley stepped up and put Operation Beary Merry Christmas into action in a matter of weeks.
Sara Snider, a member of the Buckley Community Schools Board of Education and part of Grant United Methodist Church, put the call out on Facebook and through the community. By the end, more than 20 families in Buckley had themselves a Beary Merry Christmas.
“I guess that it was never an question of not to do it,” Snider said. “Those are our neighbors. Those are our kids. The thought of those kids not having a Christmas is unacceptable.”
Snider worked with teachers and staff from Buckley as well as members of Grant United, the Tabernacle Church and the Wayside Chapel to coordinate, solicit donations, shop and organize the gifts to get to the families. All of that happened in less than a month.
Although this was the first year of Operation Beary Merry, it was a combination of annual efforts to serve struggling families in Buckley at Christmas.
Heather Cade, the Buckley athletic director and part of Wayside, works with a single donor each Christmas who provides money to buy the “wow” items for children, be that a dream dollhouse, an RC car, a bike or a pair of headphones.
The donation is made in honor of the person’s late spouse, who always wanted to “make sure kids could wake up and have a magical Christmas.”
Cade said being there when the families come to pick up their presents is a “blessing.”
“The amount they get, most of them are in awe, but I feel like we’re getting more from the blessing than we’re giving,” she said.
Families were given toys and other presents as well as necessities like boots, shoes, hats, gloves, socks, pillows, blankets and things as simple as a toothbrush or body wash. Food for a Christmas dinner was also provided.
Snider said people in Buckley “just needed a pathway” to help.
“It’s a trust thing and a God thing that you just know it’s going to work out,” she said.
Martin Rizzi, the campus pastor at the Tabernacle, said the effort and the output was bigger than expected.
“There was something we couldn’t have expected this year,” he said. “At the culmination of it, when it seemed to be a little too much, the community didn’t care who got credit. People saw a need and wanted to fill it.”
That need became apparent to Buckley Superintendent Jessica Harrand shortly after students were sent home for remote learning. Harrand said she was “incredibly surprised” by the amount of students that needed to use the district’s free lunch program.
Without Project Christmas, Harrand knew the families struggling for food would struggle more for presents.
The donors and shoppers stepping up was no surprise to Harrand — nor was their humility. Harrand said all involved preferred to remain as anonymous as possible.
“We wanted parents to be able to feel like they gave a gift to their children,” Harrand said. “We knew parents were struggling right now in a big way, and we wanted them to have the joy of giving things to their kids for Christmas.”
The generosity — even from those with little to give — amazed Snider.
“In a time when you could focus on what’s been taken from you, you’re saying ‘How can I turn this into something good for someone else?’” she said. “That was the most Christmas-y I felt all year.”
Cade believes the first year of Operation Beary Merry Christmas could be the first of many.
“The way things happened this year — and things happen for a reason — I can see us all working together,” she said. “We haven’t talked about it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we make it happen again.”