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Project Joy continues tradition for Rugby families

By Sue Sitter - | Dec 19, 2020

Sue Sitter/PCT Rugby Lions and Project Joy volunteer Lynette Vollmer stands near bags of gifts for area families.

A decades-long Christmas tradition continued in Rugby Dec. 15 when the Rugby Lions and other organizations brought joy to area families facing tough times for the holidays.

Organizer Lila Harstad said the Lions have spearheaded the project since the 1990s. Former Tribune Editor Mark Carlson, who was active in the Lions during that time, based Project Joy on a family tradition.

“His father, Oscar Carlson, was a farmer north of Rugby,” Harstad said. “He used to always tell his family they couldn’t have Christmas unless they had given to someone else first.”

“Mark carried it down to his family,” she added. “I remember reading in the Tribune he’d say John and Sarah, his kids, would have to give some of their toys to less fortunate children and then they could have Christmas.”

“Other people would call the Tribune and say, ‘Can we do the same thing?’ Gently used toys were brought to the Tribune and then it grew bigger,” Harstad said. “They moved (the toy drop-off) to the hospital conference room. Then, about that time, Mark Carlson was district governor for the Lions, and it became a Lions project.”

Carlson died in 1996, but many traditions he began, including Project Joy, lived on.

Harstad said Project Joy evolved over the years into a program to bring gifts to needy families. Pierce County social services now partners with Project Joy to help families provide gifts for their loved ones by sending wish list forms to households receiving services.

Families return the wish lists after filling them out, and the social service office sends them to Project Joy. Harstad said she and other Project Joy participants make tags to hang on Christmas trees in local businesses. Each tag has a corresponding wish list, and shoppers who choose the tags get the opportunity to buy toys and gifts for the needy families.

“This year, we put this information, including the age and whether their children are male or female along with their wish lists on trees at Hardware Hank, Fashion and Flair Outlet, Market on Main and Home of Economy,” Harstad said.

Each family’s wish list is assigned a number. The Lions bundle together gifts for each number and make the bundles available for the families to pick them up. For the past several years, families have picked up gift bundles from Lions members at Dakota Farms.

“Last year, we had 45 families and 144 individuals pick up gifts,” Harstad said. “This year, we had 30 families and 103 individuals for Project Joy. So, it’s down a little bit. I think the most we had was 60 families in the past.”

“I was talking to Vonnie (Degenstein) at the food pantry, and she said her numbers were down a little bit, too with gift baskets they’re giving out Dec. 19,” Harstad said, noting she hoped the numbers were down due to improvements in the economy.

“I think the community’s been generous,” Harstad added. “Sometimes the wishes may not all be granted, but I feel like this year, people who filled the tags went way above and beyond.”

“It was a nice addition to have Home of Economy this year,” Harstad noted.

“I think the community was very supportive and it’s due to a lot of groups and organizations, not just the Lions,” Harstad added. “Ely Elementary and Little Flower school kids have collected money this past month for this. There were a lot of cash donations given at the financial institutions. I heard of one ladies’ coffee group that instead of buy gifts for each other this year, they got tags from the trees and filled them.”

“There’s an individual who I think is originally from Rugby but now lives in California who sends me a check every year,” Harstad added. “It’s about $120. I really should call him. As a young child, was he gifted from Project Joy? Is he giving back?”

“But every year, I get a check,” Harstad added. “He always calls me and asks if we’re ‘doing that Project Joy.'”

More information on Project Joy is available from Rugby Lions members or Harstad at 776-5254.

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