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Living the Christmas spirit

LAKE SHORE — Stacks of toys and kid’s clothing cover nearly every available space in the downstairs rooms at Katie Wagener’s home as though Santa has set up an outlet.

The piles of toys are even more remarkable as Wagener doesn’t have children underfoot at the Ideal Township home she shares with her husband Mike. But beginning each fall, her waking — and even perhaps dreaming — hours are engulfed by Christmas toys. The stuff that fills the wish lists of girls and boys. Transformers, Dairy Queen Blizzard making machines, arts and crafts, books, Play-doh, Barbies, Legos, baby dolls, trucks, board games, boots and balls.

“It’s endless,” said Wagener’s friend Linda Rydell as she looked over the tables of toys. “I don’t know how she does it.”

Each Christmas for the past decade, Wagener has been a mainstay of the effort to gather toys for children. Wagener is president of Christmas for Kids, a community volunteer effort that aims to bring something to children who may not have had a present under the tree without it.

“So Katie has 280 kids,” Rydell said.

A neighbor first got Wagener involved. She may never have imagined where that would lead. Christmas for Kids provides presents for children, infants through high school students, who live in the Pequot Lakes, Jenkins, Lake Shore, Merrifield, Breezy Point, Ideal Township and Nisswa communities. Their families — numbering 41 so far this year — also receive a holiday meal including a turkey, five pounds of potatoes, a loaf of bread, butter, cans of vegetables, gravy, stuffing, dessert and a snack, courtesy of Schaefer’s Foods in Nisswa.

The nonprofit volunteer effort provides the children with an outfit, a pair of pajamas and three or four items off their Christmas wish list. The community effort touches numerous lives as people pick gift tags off a tree at Schaefer’s Foods in Nisswa or bring in toys and donate funds throughout the year. Even in economic times that caused widespread hardships, Wagener said people continue to give. She came home one day to find four large bags of toys at her door, donated anonymously.

“That is one thing that’s always amazed me, the generosity of people,” Wagener said.

Gifts for children first started as area police officers pooled their money to buy toys or winter boots for families they knew could needed them. Eventually, the volunteer and toy donations outgrew its grass roots effort and a nonprofit organization was formed. Wagener entered that scene 12 years ago.

“This is my world September through January,” Wagener said, looking at the piles of toys and racks of clothes that have over taken numerous rooms in her home. Law enforcement personnel from the lakes area, along with DNR and firefighters, continue to dress up as Santa and deliver the presents on Christmas Eve morning with police car escorts. Families sign up for the program in Pequot Lakes and Nisswa and names come from social workers. Care is taken to make sure families are not on duplicate lists with other programs and each year a few families are discovered. But Wagener said a lot of the families on the list have a disabled parent. Children fill out wish lists. A skateboard, football and fishing supplies together for one boy. Princess dress, game and pink winter boots for a girl.

“There are a lot of people who really need it,” Wagener said. Wagener said she went out on deliveries in the beginning and remembers entering a home that had a laundry tub for a sink, floor boards worn down to the dirt in the kitchen and few furnishings in the living room. The unadorned little Christmas tree sat in a five-gallon bucket without a present beneath it. That image stuck with her.

“I always had the best Christmas so that’s why I feel sorry for a lot of these kids,” Wagener said.

She sends out letters asking for donations in September and October. R&D Batteries from Burnsville supplies a case of batteries for the electronic toys. Mills Fleet Farm also provides a donation. But most of the funding comes from community members. Wagener and volunteers then shop in bulk. With the tables and counter tops filled with toys and clothes, Wagener and helpers then take the sheets filled out by the families and pick out the items that fit.

On Dec. 22, volunteers will gather at the Nisswa Community Center to wrap the gifts. Wrapping paper, tape and tags are provided. Pizzas and pop are donated. Wagener said the only time she is really at a loss for help is when the gifts have to be loaded from her home and taken to the community center, which typically happens on a bitterly cold day and requires trip after trip, up and down stairs.

Wagener, 47, grew up in the Twin Cities moved to the lakes area 13 years ago after buying Cold Spring Resort by Nisswa. An animal lover her entire life, she was the one who took in the stray cat and found it a home. She learned to ride on the back of a disagreeable Welsh pony and later earned 4-H ribbons in the show ring. Wagener is close to her family. She grew up with two sisters and a brother and her parents now live next door. The Christmas gifts she enjoys giving the most are ones she’s made. Wagener makes salsa, jams and spaghetti sauce.

“It’s so good,” Rydell said. This year, Wagener is knitting scarves.

Wagener isn’t sure who will take Christmas for Kids over when she is done. She established the giving tree for the Christmas program and nurtured the effort as it grew to include the family meal and wider community involvement. Everyone tells her they don’t want to step into her shoes.

“I had such a great childhood,” she said. “I always looked forward to Christmas.”

And that’s what drives Wagener to donate so much of her time and effort each year. She can’t begin to count how many hours she puts toward Christmas for Kids, but said it continues to be worth it.

“It’s the one time of year these kids probably get anything at all,” she said. “I’m doing this for the kids.”

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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