Nonprofit Spotlight: Bella Angels, Inc.

Spreading Christmas cheer! Bella Casa residents collect and wrap gifts for families participating in their Christmas Gift Program. Contributed photo.

In December 2015, Kris Miller was just another mom living in Bella Casa — a large, well-known neighborhood in Apex. With Christmas only a few days away, Miller did what many of us have been guilty of at one point or another.

“I started wrapping presents and realized we had bought too much,” admitted Miller, whose children were 5 and 7 at the time. “Frankly, it felt gross. It was not how I wanted my kids to remember Christmas. I said to my husband, ‘There is a mother somewhere right around us that has nothing for their kids.’”

With Christmas less than 72 hours away, Miller knew she had to do something — but the clock was ticking.

“I got my computer and went on at like 11 p.m.,” said Miller. “We were supposed to leave town like 24 to 48 hours later. I started looking, knowing that there had to be some people who had slipped through the cracks.”

Miller’s search took her to the free section on Craigslist, where she soon found desperate parents with nowhere else to turn.

“I found a mom who was just trying to find Christmas dinner for her family,” recalled Miller. “Someone had a 6-year-old, and they were looking for a toy car. My husband mentioned that some of these people might be lying — but I said that if they are, that’s between them and God. I could not pretend that I hadn’t read that a mother needed Christmas dinner.”

After identifying four families in need, Miller took to Bella Casa’s neighborhood Facebook page to ask for help. The response was overwhelming.

“Well, my house was bananas the next day,” said Miller. “Let’s just say I did not leave town — people were dropping off things left and right. Someone had ordered a Christmas dinner from Harris Teeter within 4 minutes of seeing the post. It was crazy. We ended up getting a family that was living in a car in a hotel for like three months that night. Everyone was over here wrapping presents — presents for the moms, presents for the kids, presents for everyone.”

The following year, Miller was determined to reach more families in need. She posted on the neighborhood Facebook page in October, and with incredible support from her neighbors, they were able to assist 30 families with gifts and stockings for the children. This was the start of Bella Angels’ Christmas Gift Program, intended to be a one-time magical holiday experience for families who “are having the worst year ever.”

In the past, the program has assisted those dealing with terminal illnesses, bankruptcies, job loss, injuries, and other catastrophic circumstances. Applications are posted online starting in October, but spots fill up quickly. These applications are not anonymous — Miller’s goal is to create a sense of community, so those who are in a position to help can actually get to know the families they are shopping for. Family packets, put together by Miller, provide pictures and stories that are shared only with matching families.

“It inspires people to be more personal,” said Miller. “For me, it was all about the kids. They should open a present that feels like it’s for them — not for a ‘girl, 9 years old.’ There’s lots of details about the kids so they can feel like they got to know them.”

In December, selected families come to a pickup event to collect their items.

“They pick up wrapped presents and filled stockings,” said Miller. “People in this neighborhood are amazing — they sometimes have the stockings customized, so the family is getting embroidered stockings, filled to the brim.”

Miller is particularly proud of the fact that their Christmas Gift Program does not have an age limit.

“In so many programs you age out when you’re 12, but a 13-year-old needs Christmas,” said Miller. “And guess what, so do the 19-year-olds. These are the kids that I feel like we have the biggest impact on, because they are aware that the magic is gone and that their parents are having these issues.”

In 2017, neighbors began offering up gently used items, and the idea for the annual Christmas thrift store was born.

Every year, a local church is transformed into a Christmas Thrift Store, filled to the brim with stocking stuffers, clothes, books, toys, and more! Contributed photo.

“I felt really funny about wrapping gently used items, but I was sure that there were some people who would appreciate being able to shop,” said Miller. “The year that the store started, you couldn’t walk up the stairs because of all the boxes. I set up a store in the middle of the night, because I didn’t have the neighborhood clubhouse reserved the day before. We set everything up for people to shop, and it worked out great, but I was exhausted.”

Thankfully, two of Miller’s neighbors — Deborah Jenkins and Amy Riley — volunteered to take on the thrift store after that first year.

“Selfishly, my favorite program is the store,” said Jenkins, now vice president and volunteer coordinator. “The moment a family enters the room and realizes that we can provide more than toys, but much-needed clothing, important bedding, a bike, dishes, and cookware — they have peace. The emotions they experience that day as they lay their trust in us to help them is an honor and a gift we do not take lightly.”

As with every program within Bella Angels, the Christmas Thrift Store has grown leaps and bounds over the years. Gently used items are donated and stored in a small storage unit (paid for by a neighbor, of course), and a local church offers the use of their building for five days every year for preparation and takedown. Families can apply to shop at the store in late November and early December, when most other programs are full and parents find themselves needing last-minute help.

“The store application is much less involved, but we still get more applications than we get spots,” said Miller. “It’s a one-day store, and we get through about 100 shoppers. They come and get a half hour shopping spree, and they have a personal shopper, who’s a neighbor in Bella Casa. The whole experience is meant to be fun, almost like a sip ’n’ shop. We have a person in the neighborhood who owns a car dealership, and they donate boxes of Christmas candy that parents can pick up for stockings. They can start by picking out wrapping paper, and then they can shop for books, clothes, toys, and more. We have amazing volunteers who are really good at helping people have fun and not feel less than or any of that nonsense.”

In addition to holiday programs, Bella Angels also provides year-round help with their Helping to Home and Everyone Needs to Read/Library Builder programs. Helping to Home works on a referral-only basis, assisting families with rent and bills in the hopes of preventing a housing crisis.

“We help when we can with partial rent and partial utilities, because we don’t have unlimited funds,” said Miller. “We’ve paid for someone’s new tires; we’ve paid a car bill. We take it on a case-by-case basis.”

The Everyone Needs to Read and Library Builder programs were created by Miller’s oldest son, Charlie, in an effort to share his love of reading with the community. Gently used and new books are collected in the neighborhood and then delivered to local shelters, programs, and preschools in need. The Library Builder provides families in need with a personalized bag of gently used books delivered directly to their doorstep.

For those who are interested in helping with Bella Angels’ seasonal or year-round programs, there are many wonderful ways to be involved that DON’T involve a move to Bella Casa! While monetary donations are always welcome, tangible opportunities include the following:

  • Interested volunteers are encouraged to take a look at Bella Angels’ Amazon Wish List, which identifies the top items needed most for families (particularly for teens and tweens).
  • Hold a drive in your community! Clean bedding, especially sleeping pillows, is always needed. This means no holes, tears, or stains. Packs of brand-new underwear and socks also make a huge impact, particularly to the children (including teens).
  • Bella Angels repairs gently used bikes for both kids and adults. Bikes are often the only means of transportation to school, work, or the grocery store.
  • Are you in a Rotary, Lions Club, or other organization? Invite Bella Angels to speak about the important work they are doing in our community!

One of the best ways to help is to simply get to know your neighbors and identify any needs in your community.

“We are just one small but mighty organization that every year has to turn away so many families,” said Jenkins. “We encourage other neighborhoods and communities to consider starting out their own version.”

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