The holiday season can be financially and emotionally daunting for those like Camilla, who have fled a domestic violence situation.
Which is why Family Shelter Service’s free Holiday Shoppe is a lifeline that lets her set aside her stresses to focus on the needs of her family and make “beautiful memories” with her children.
“As a single mom with no family, (the Holiday Shoppe) allowed me to receive a gift, which is never the case because I am always the provider (for my children) and place their needs before mine,” said Camilla, a client whose name was changed to protect her and her family.
For 25 years, Family Shelter Service of Metropolitan Family Services DuPage has brought joy to women, men and children through its Holiday Shoppe.
Without it, hundreds of victims of domestic abuse would be unable to provide Christmas presents under the tree, said Betsy Carlson, the nonprofit’s safe connections coordinator.
This year the need was greater than ever, Carlson said, with 240 clients shopping for themselves and their kids — a total of 1,600 people.
In recent years, the shop has averaged around 200 clients plus their children, she said.
If the Holiday Shoppe was not an option, shelter services client Liz said she and her son would either go without gifts or fall deeper into snowballing credit card debt.
“I honestly cried when I got up to my room and saw the things that were given to my son and I. God bless those people who donate and buy things for us,” Liz said of visiting the Shoppe.
While Christmas is not about giving and receiving gifts, she would have felt guilty not being able to provide at least one item for her son. “The holiday would’ve broken me as a mother,” Liz said.
The Holiday Shoppe also provided a mental break to forget “all the bad stuff going on in life for 15 minutes,” she said.
“It was all about my son, and it was honestly the best feeling I have felt for the longest time,” Liz said.
Christmas can be a difficult time for clients with a lot of stress over what they’re doing to do, Carlson said.
“We want to provide a sense of relief (and take some pressure) off their shoulders,” she said.
The Holiday Shoppe offers toys for children from infants to teens, clothing for all ages, purses, blankets and beauty products, including skin care items, bath bombs, blow dryers and hair straighteners.
Clients are invited to shop free of charge in the makeshift store set up in multiple rooms at an emergency residential shelter in DuPage County.
This year is the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began that clients are able to shop in-person.
For the past several years, Carlson said staff and volunteers put together bags with blankets, outerwear and gift cards that clients received in outdoor drive-through lanes.
Items for the Holiday Shoppe are donated by individuals, groups and businesses, and the selection changes every year based on what was furnished.
“We’re really fortunate and grateful,” Carlson said. “This is just a really great event for clients as well as staff … Our staff really looks forward to this event.”
For some of their employees, she said, it’s a chance to catch up with clients.
For others who help clients work through trauma, the Shoppe is a positive way for staff to rejuvenate and see their clients with a smile.
To bring the Holiday Shoppe to fruition this year, 120 volunteers donated 331 service hours on top of the countless hours provided by 27 staff members, many of whom are bilingual, Carlson said.
The number of individuals and families served by Family Shelter Service tends to drop between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, she said, as people gather with family and abuse victims put on a brave face.
“Once the holidays are over, the pressure returns and we see an increase in numbers again,” Carlson said.
In 2021-22, Family Shelter Services worked with 5,974 individuals, of which 4,882 were from DuPage County, including 128 clients from Naperville.
Holidays or not, Carlson said anyone who is experiencing domestic abuse is encouraged to call the shelter’s 24/7 hotline at 630-469-5650.
“It’s not something a person should be ashamed of,” she said.
Although the agency typically averages about 13,000 hotline calls a year — 6,000 of which come from police department referrals — Carlson said this year her agency saw an increase to 15,000 calls received.