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Stephanie Tena is an AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer Coordinator at Heartland Alliance.

The holiday season ignites a sense of reflection, graciousness, and a call to give back to others. One of the ways to channel this altruism is to participate in existing campaigns, such as canned food drives, caroling, tithing, or toy collections.

At Heartland Alliance, the Stuff-A-Stocking campaign is just one of our holiday campaigns that allow community members to connect with the work that we do for participants who find home, healing, and health with us. This year, Heartland Alliance restructured the Stuff-A-Stocking campaign by gathering community members and stakeholders at our main office in the Loop to assemble stockings with household and personal hygiene items, winter clothing, and even some playful toys for our youth.

Stephanie is all smiles as she loads the last bag for distribution.

Q: How did you prepare for the event?

Since this was the first year that Heartland Alliance decided to change the structure of the campaign, I helped prepare everything from finding a physical space to hosting four “stuffing parties;” conducting market research of manufacturers, distributers, and program needs for 2,000 participants across 13 programs; coordinating donations and receiving thousands of items in bulk; creating floor plans of the event days; and communicating to community members and programs. All of this took three months of diligent work leading up to the events.

Luckily, Heartland Alliance’s Donor and Community Relations Team has an “all-hands-on-deck” mentality when it comes to our work. From hauling boxes and carts up and down elevators to encouragement and praise, their support was crucial in the success of our campaign.

Q: What did you learn from putting together this event?

I truly learned how much time and attention goes into organizing community events, especially the small details. I didn’t think I would be exercising my arithmetic skills very much in this role, but it was vital to figuring out how many toothbrushes came in a pack, how many packs came in a box, how many boxes added up to a case, and how to get the best value for a non-profit organization.

Logistics aside, this campaign allowed me to witness the power in numbers. To have people willing to physically show up and help us fill 2,000 stockings with 10-12 items in each of them was an incredible feat that touched a lot of people during the holiday season.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of being a VISTA and working with Heartland Alliance?

As a VISTA, I know that I’m doing the most good for the most people by creating systems that directly impact the experience and the capacity for Heartland Alliance to continue to thrive and help others.

That is rewarding in itself, but another dimension is created when I receive a thank you letter from a participant who was over the moon about receiving their stocking, or when we record one dollar in our donor database that a second grader donated to help another kid like her, and when I shake hands with community members and staff who give their time to make our work possible.

Stephanie would like to thank Ellen Moore for her vision of equity, engagement, and the tireless hours of warrior work together on this campaign.

— Stephanie Tena, VISTA Volunteer Coordinator at Heartland Alliance