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Now 100 years old, Christmas Unlimited is hoping for some holiday magic

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Christmas Unlimited, whose toy shop is pictured here, celebrated its 100th birthday this year, but executive director Mike Tapia said another century won’t be possible without donations and volunteers.
Photo: Kyle Cooke, Rocky Mountain PBS

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — When he was growing up in Trinidad, Colorado, Mike Tapia didn’t know that his parents were not wealthy. The presents under the Christmas tree each year didn’t indicate that his mom and dad struggled to make ends meet.

“When I moved here to Colorado Springs, I called my mom and said ‘thank you for a wonderful childhood,’” Tapia recalled, holding back tears.

“[My parents] were able to give me a great childhood. I found out later that we shouldn't have afforded it. And they probably shouldn't have done that for me. But they did,” he said.

Tapia is reminded of his parents’ efforts every day. He currently serves as the executive director of the nonprofit Christmas Unlimited. In a nondescript former auto garage off East Boulder Street in Colorado Springs, parents and caregivers arrive at Christmas Unlimited to pick up toys, books, clothes, school supplies and more for their children, all at no cost. The kids don’t know Christmas Unlimited exists, much like Tapia was ignorant to his parents’ sacrifices.

“We want to empower the parents,” Tapia said. “No matter what's happened, we want to empower them.”

Colorado Voices

Christmas Unlimited, now 100, hopes for holiday magic

Shanity Flemming-Stackhouse has been coming to Christmas Unlimited for the past four years.

“I just really think it’s an amazing program,” said Flemming-Stackhouse, who has four children. “The fact that I can choose for myself what I'm getting instead of just being handed a big bag of stuff and saying, ‘good luck.’”

Each year, families can register to shop at Christmas Unlimited by filling out an application at one of more than a dozen community organizations around Colorado Springs. No proof of income is required; the organization only asks for copies of the children’s birth certificates. Shoppers receive a set amount of “points” based on the number of children they’re shopping for, and they use those points — not cash — to purchase the presents.

This year, Christmas Unlimited turned 100 years old. The centennial birthday was a major accomplishment for the nonprofit and Tapia hopes it's still around another century from now. 

But longevity is a double-edged sword. Christmas Unlimited can only survive as long as there are families in need in the Pikes Peak region and Tapia doesn’t see the need going anywhere. The nonprofit accepts donations for children throughout the year. 

“We're not just here during the holidays doing toy drives and toy distribution. We also service every school in the Pikes Peak region,” Tapia said. “In August, as they're going back to school, we make bulk donations [of school supplies] to all the school districts.”

“A lot has changed in schools,” he explained. “Dry erase markers are very expensive. It's evolved from one notebook and No. 2 pencil to now where there are many items that [students] need and tools in order to start their education.”

In Colorado Springs, at least two school districts — Harrison School District 2 and Colorado Springs School District 11 — cover the cost of school supplies for students in grades K-8. Though the local approach has been successful in saving families money, national trends paint a bleaker picture. An annual survey from the National Retail Federation found that expected spending on back-to-school shopping reached record levels in 2023. 

“Families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of $890.07 on back-to-school items,” the survey found.

School supplies fill one of the five bays at Christmas Unlimited’s warehouse in Colorado Springs. When the nonprofit is not distributing toys during the holiday season, it prioritizes school supplies and clothes.
Photo: Kyle Cooke, Rocky Mountain PBS

Christmas Unlimited began in 1923 as the Mrs. Santa Claus Club. The Dec. 16, 1923 edition of the Gazette Telegraph included a profile of the women who started the organization. Today, a framed copy of the paper is featured prominently in Tapia’s office. The headline reads: “Poor Youngsters Assured Merry Christmas; Mrs. Santa Claus Club Up to Ears in Work.” The women worked from an attic at the Newton Lumber yard, restoring dolls and providing food and clothes. Eventually, the organization moved to the YMCA and rebranded as Christmas Unlimited in the early 70s.

In 1987, Christmas Unlimited almost closed because they didn’t have enough volunteers to manage the workload. The answer to their trouble was the “store” model that is used to this day.

Even so, volunteers remain an urgent need for Christmas Unlimited. Tapia said many of the volunteers are retired school teachers.

“We need new blood and we need volunteers that are younger to get involved and to help us out, because there's a lot to do here,” he said.

Christmas Unlimited dates back to 1923, when a group of women created the Mrs. Santa Claus Club. Tapia has a framed clipping of a newspaper article about the club that would later become Christmas Unlimited.
Photo: Kyle Cooke, Rocky Mountain PBS

The volunteer shortfall is not a problem specific to Christmas Unlimited or even to Colorado Springs. It’s a nationwide challenge. TheWashington Post reported this month that the number of volunteers in the US has steadily declined over the last 13 years.

Flemming-Stackhouse hopes to bring her children to Christmas Unlimited as volunteers once they’re old enough (and once they find out that this is where their presents have been coming from).

“The people here are amazing,” she said. “The volunteers are so nice and they're so helpful, and everybody should come down and give it a shot.”

Christmas Unlimited moved into a former auto shop 21 years ago. The minimal signage outside the buiding helps to maintain a low-key appearance.
Photo: Kyle Cooke, Rocky Mountain PBS

Because Christmas Unlimited has somewhat of a clandestine operation — again, they don’t want kids knowing they exist — spreading the word about volunteering and donating is difficult.

 “Everybody that I've talked to outside of here has never heard of it,” Fleming-Stackhouse said about Christmas Unlimited. “So I don't think it's as well known as it should be.”

“We've never made a cry out to the community for monetary donations. They just came in and we were able to pay the bills at Christmas Unlimited's warehouse,” he said. That is no longer the case.

“So it comes down to, once again, lacking donations … and the need getting greater. It's been a struggle, and I'm just being honest. The future looks bleak if we can't accomplish it.”

Kyle Cooke is the digital media manager at Rocky Mountain PBS.

Chase McCleary is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS.

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