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Project Joy continues community Christmas tradition

By Staff | Dec 20, 2019

Sue Sitter/PCT Rugby Lions Lila Harstad (left) and Craig Wollenburg were ready to distribute Project Joy gift bags Tuesday in the Dakota Farms banquet room.

A decades-long Christmas tradition continued for the Rugby Lions this week as Lions Club members distributed bags of presents for Project Joy to community residents in need.

Lila Harstad, who organizes Project Joy along with fellow Lions Club member Judy Jelsing, told the Tribune the tradition of giving started with former Tribune Publisher Mark Carlson “in the late ’70s, early ’80s, maybe.”

“He (Carlson) decided that he wanted to carry on a tradition that he grew up with. His father had said, ‘You can’t have any presents under the tree until you give something to someone else.’ So, he decided to carry this on with his own children, and then he decided, ‘Gosh, why don’t I do this with the community?’ “

Harstad said Carlson “was a big Lion and a big ‘We Serve’ proponent, and then he started taking donations at the Tribune office and said, ‘Bring gifts into the Tribune office and we’ll give them to the needy.’ And it just got bigger and bigger and turned into what it is today.”

Harstad said the tradition has changed slightly over the decades.

“We work anonymously with (Pierce County) social services, so we don’t know who recipients are. Probably 100 letters were sent out with social services in October, and if they want to be part a part of the project, they send back a letter with a wish list,” Harstad noted.

However, Harstad added, “Not everything could be or would be fulfilled.”

Harstad said Jelsing wrote the wish lists on individual tags. The wish list tags were placed on four Christmas trees set up at four Rugby businesses: Rugby Hardware Hank, Fashion and Flair Boutique, Family Dollar and Market on Main.

Shoppers were encouraged to take tags off the trees and purchase items from their lists for donation to Project Joy.

“Then, Harstad explained, “Monday, the tags that weren’t taken off the trees were taken off (by the Rugby Lions who used monetary donations to shop for list items for each tag). “

“By Monday afternoon, all of those gifts were then brought to the Dakota Farms banquet room and each family was given a letter saying, “You can come on Tuesday for the gift distribution, and this is your number.”

Harstad said gift bags for each Project Joy family or individual were assembled by Rugby High School students in Julie Sjol’s and Paola Trottier’s eighth period classes.

“Then we did the distribution,” Harstad said.

As of Tuesday evening, Harstad and fellow Lions Club member Craig Wollenburg had only five gift bags left to distribute.

“We started with 45 families, and they came in here to pick up their things,” Harstad said. “There are 144 individuals (receiving gift bags) because there are typically more than two per household. We try to fulfill as much as we can from their wish list.”

Harstad said gift recipients are “anywhere from young, single parent families with a couple of kids to senior citizens, foster families, people who are just moving into the community and getting a start.”

“It’s a fulfilling project,” she added.

Harstad said working with Project Joy brings “times when you can put a face to these bags. They’re not just numbers.”

Wollenburg told of an experience he had with Project Joy a few years ago.

“I was collecting for the Rugby Lions Club golf tournament and it was one of those days when you don’t know if you’re making a difference with all the activities you do and you just don’t know what good it’s doing,” Wollenburg recalled.

Wollenburg said he walked into an office to fax information for the charity.

“And the lady that was in the front office looked at me and said, ‘Oh, you’re from the Lions Club.’ I said, ‘yes.’ She said, ‘You guys are great people. Two years ago, if it hadn’t been for the Lions Club, my children wouldn’t have had Christmas.'”

“And right then, I just said to myself, ‘I can keep going.’ I wanted to go home but I can keep doing this, I can keep working,” Wollenburg said after a pause.

“We really do make a difference. I’ll carry that (memory) for the next several years,” he added.

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