original article published December 15, 2021 by the Milpitas Beat
The Holiday Season is upon us and somehow it feels different this year. People seem anxious to celebrate, perhaps because COVID-19 robbed us of our Christmas cheer last year and forced everyone into quarantine. And while the virus is still hanging on, adapting and transforming into new variants, there is the hint of hope in the air, and a need to celebrate and hug our loved ones tighter than before. It’s a world that is reawakening after a long hibernation, grateful to be alive and once again looking toward the future.
In the aftermath of this pandemic, people will mourn the demise of many local businesses. But there is one nonprofit that not even the Grinch could stop from spreading Christmas joy, this year or any other: The Family Giving Tree (FGT). We last profiled them here 3 Christmases ago.
And Jennifer Cullenbine, Co-Founder and Queen Elf of Milpitas’ FGT, has recently shared news of a major milestone: Just this month, FGT served its 2 millionth Bay Area recipient.
You’re A Mean One, COVID-19
The pandemic has slowed things down for FGT. But this year, FGT is hoping to help 40,000 children, with their volunteer base down to 2,000 – still high numbers, all things considered. Cullenbine expects that it will probably take a few years to get back to their pre-COVID levels. In the meantime, the Queen Elf and her merry band have looked into some creative solutions…
In April 2020, FGT launched an Education Relief Fund, raising over $40,000 to help provide over 3,900 School Supply Kits to students throughout the community to aid them in their transition to distance learning. In May 2020, they launched another initiative called Bring Hope Home, raising $321,000 to help families in East Palo Alto, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and San Jose afford the basic necessities of rent, groceries, and gas. Says Cullenbine, “This was very meaningful help. Very different from our regular fundraising.”
Last Christmas, FGT also had a goal of distributing 40,000 gifts, but ended up surpassing it by distributing over 78,000. They also created and distributed 15,000 Essential Health Kits, each containing a face mask, hand sanitizer, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and dental floss. This is an extension of their standing policy to include a toothbrush with every gift. Says Cullenbine, “Going to the dentist is a privilege that a lot of children in the Bay Area can’t afford. They don’t go to the dentist every year. They don’t get new toothbrushes.”
In March of this year, FGT launched their first-ever Student Restock Program, to help replenish school supplies and health essentials. The program was intended to help students maintain their momentum in school. Items were distributed in purple drawstring bags with the words “Believe in Yourself” printed on the front. $50,000 was raised and 10,000 kits were handed out.
Another side effect of the pandemic has been an increase in online monetary donations and a decrease in actual toy donations, which gives FGT more financial power to buy the gifts themselves. Explains Cullenbine, “We spent over $700,000 this year on gifts. That’s a ton of gifts! And our money goes further because we buy wholesale. So it’s turning into this hybrid model where it’s not just about people bringing us gifts, but also about people giving us money so we can buy the gifts ourselves.”
Doing Good With JTC
One of FGT’s strengths is working with partners. After all, who wouldn’t want to help the Queen Elf? Among the many donors this year was JTC, a global fund management company specializing in investments related to community improvement and job creation. At their San Jose office, 30 people are focused on creating software that tracks goodness. Says Reid Thomas, Managing Director, “We try to make sure our investors’ dollars are protected, safe, and do the good that they were originally intended to do.”
Historically, JTC employees have given back by volunteering at local homeless shelters and various other agencies. This year marked the company’s first cash donation. They chose FGT because of their focus on education and helping young people. Says Thomas, “There is clearly a need for all of us to do more to help the children in our communities, which is why we at JTC are contributing to the Family Giving Tree for the 2021 Holiday Wish Drive. Our contribution will go toward making an educational difference for thousands of children in the Bay Area.”
Making Milpitas Proud
And then there’s the aforementioned milestone, with FGT having served its 2 millionth recipient in the Bay.
“It took 12 years to reach our first million recipients and 9 to reach the second,” shared Cullenbine in a recent press release. “What a joy it has been to impact the community through holiday gifts and school supply-filled backpacks, but to see this huge number roll into view still nearly bowls me over. It shows the generous support of the Bay Area community year after year. I am truly both proud and humbled.”
The organization has meanwhile been recognized by Charity Navigator, the world’s largest and most trusted nonprofit evaluator, with a 4-star rating (their highest score) for the sixth consecutive year.
With all of these achievements and accolades, it’s no surprise that Cullenbine was selected as Milpitas Business Person of the Year in 2000 (and is perhaps due up again??). In addition, she has lived in Milpitas for 30 years and has been a member of the Milpitas Rotary for 20. Her husband and her children are all Milpitas High graduates.
Throughout her journey, Cullenbine has remained humble and focused. One of her greatest joys is watching families who volunteer to help out in the warehouse: “During this pandemic, we’re the only place that I know of who have let families help out together, with children of all ages. This is a really important part of what we do. These children learn important lessons about the value of philanthropy and helping others. If we can do a better job of this as a community, then maybe we will have fewer people who need help in the future.”
Does Cullenbine have a Christmas Wish? “Well, what we do is very simple. For $25-$40, someone can make a child happy, and the donor will remember that and be able to picture that child playing with the toy all year round. It’s a win-win for everyone. The only reason we’re not doing this all the time is because we can’t afford a warehouse. I would love for that to happen.”
In the meantime, the Queen Elf is content to spread joy 2 times a year, to thousands of Bay Area children whose lives will be forever changed.
The Family Giving Tree 2021 Holiday Toy Drive is happening now until December 23. For more information, visit www.familygivingtree.org.