Ypsi's Secret Santa Society brightens holiday season for families in need

For the past four years, volunteers have collected and distributed presents, decorations, and household items for local families during the holiday season.
The winter holiday season has arrived, but for some Ypsilanti families, the "most wonderful time of the year" is a source of stress unlike any other. With Washtenaw County boasting the highest rent rates in the state of Michigan and wages stagnating, many families must choose whether to put a roof over their heads, or buy Christmas gifts. However, an Ypsilanti nonprofit called the Secret Santa Society is in its fourth year of relieving struggling families of some of the stress of creating a happy holiday.

"We go into so many homes that are working to survive, and the holidays are a luxury," says Jessica Ashmore, who founded the Secret Santa Society in 2018 after identifying one family's needs through her work with the Washtenaw County Juvenile Court system. "The year we started, we were checking in on this child. We asked him what he was asking Santa for, and he essentially said, 'Santa’s not coming this year.'"
 Ypsilanti Secret Santa Society founder Jessica Ashmore.
In the organization’s first year, Ashmore identified four families who could benefit from having the significant financial stress of the holidays taken off their shoulders. She worked alongside her own family to purchase gifts and food to drop off for those families on Christmas Eve that year. The Secret Santa Society is designed to be both "fun and functional," according to Ashmore, with volunteers packing gifts into laundry baskets and plastic totes that recipients keep once their gifts have been delivered. The number of families served increased to 24 by 2019, when Ashmore posted on Facebook to find folks looking to donate time and money to those families in need. 
"In eight days, we put together Christmas for 78 people," Ashmore says.
Identifying need
But the Secret Santa Society provides more than just Christmas cheer. Families of any faith and denomination may be referred to the organization. Ashmore says there are many families in Ypsilanti seeking political asylum who lack the funds to get household necessities like laundry detergent, let alone purchase gifts for their children for the holidays. Items like household cleaners, kitchenware, winter coats and boots, lotion, body sprays, and children’s toys are all considered a luxury when a family can’t afford rent.

Ashmore and other Secret Santa Society volunteers recognize that need looks different for different people.

"The important thing to remember is these are families that generally don’t have access to other things," says Secret Santa Society volunteer turned board member Stacia Zellner. "Nine times out of 10, they don’t realize they’re in need. What I hear all the time is that 'I’d rather someone who needs more to take that spot.' But to see them after they’ve received that gift and see how relieved they are, their needs are met. That’s what’s important to me."
Ypsilanti Secret Santa Society board member Stacia Zellner.
Zellner, a case worker and probation officer for Washtenaw County, donated to the Secret Santa Society in its early days, when a busy schedule limited her from greater involvement. But having grown up in Washtenaw County with a passion for service, she knew that she wanted to do more, which led her to becoming a board member when the organization became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. She says "any one of us at any time" could fall upon hard times and need help at the holidays.

"That’s why it's important to be able to remember that, do this work, and not be judgemental of these families," she says. "I always want to be in that position, always be humble, and work directly with families."

The high cost of the holidays

The National Retail Federation found that in 2021, the average American spent nearly $900 on winter holiday gifts for friends, family, and coworkers. With that number expected to increase further this year, and with the median gross rent in Washtenaw County being $1,161, many families have to make very difficult decisions at the holidays. The Secret Santa Society aims to eliminate the need for those hard calls.

"If they were going to use their money to provide these things for Christmas, it frees up their money to do other things like grocery shop or pay rent. To be put in that position, for us to come in and alleviate some of that, it’s very beneficial," says Zellner. "We have trees that we donate as well. I’ve had kids in the past say all they wanted was a tree, even if there’s nothing under it. To see their faces light up and their eyes sparkle because they’re able to sit around a Christmas tree, you do see the benefits of it. Not only will it last this year, it will last for years to come."
Stacia Zellner and Jessica Ashmore of the Ypsilanti Secret Santa Society.
The past two years have brought additional economic tumult, to say the least, and Zellner sees the COVID-19 pandemic's social and economic effects firsthand in her work. 

"It means a lot to this community, especially this year, where we have such a substantial problem with housing [and] near-homeless or eviction status," she says. "We don’t want people to use the last bit of money they have on Christmas." 

Expanding operation

In previous years, the Secret Santa Society has used storage units to manage donation drop-off, gift wrapping, and loading gifts into trucks to be delivered on Christmas Eve. Last year, though, the Michigan Firehouse Museum offered its basement for the organization to use instead. 

Dave Egler, director of the Firehouse Museum, learned from Ypsilanti Fire Chief Ken Hobbs that the Secret Santa Society was looking for a bigger home. He says he was happy to provide the space, given the impact that the organization has had in the past few years. 

"I hadn’t even heard of Secret Santa Society until I got the phone call," Egler says. "We support a lot of charities throughout the year, but this is one of our larger undertakings."

So large, in fact, that Ashmore had to cap the number of families served at 60 this year. In 2021, the organization helped nearly 400 people across 83 families, which had the Firehouse Museum packed with donations and volunteers. This year, Egler says, they’ve "fine tuned" the system so that space can be used more effectively. But even the high volume of gifts and people didn’t stop Egler from getting into the holiday spirit. 
Secret Santa Society donation space at the Michigan Firehouse Museum.
"It’s amazing to see how generous people are," he says. "... There’s so much behind the scenes with this particular project. Seeing how it operates and how they do what they do, it’s just fantastic. If not for them, there’s several dozen families who may not have a substantial Christmas.".

Ashmore and Zellner say many people want to help local families during the holidays, but don’t know how. The holidays are a great time to donate money or gifts to organizations like Secret Santa Society, but donating time is just as important as donating money. 

"It doesn't have to be a million dollars," Zellner says. "They don’t have to dedicate much time to this organization, or any other. It’s important for us all to do our part for the community we live in." 

To learn more about the Secret Santa Society, or to donate or volunteer, visit the organization's website, or email questions to secretsantasocietyypsi@gmail.com.

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
All photos by Doug Coombe.
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