CLC angel tree reflects community generosity

"This is truly, truly, authentically a culture of caring," Meta 5 Program Director Kimberly Pilgrim said.

Central Lakes College students and staff members purchased and wrapped 107 gifts for the annual angel tree project, which provides gifts to the children of students who need a little extra help. In a normal year, the program gives out about 75-85 gifts. Submitted Photo

Like so many things in 2020, Central Lakes College’s annual Christmas festivities went virtual.

The college usually hosts a holiday party, during which Santa delivers presents to children of CLC students who signed up for the angel tree. Parents who need a little extra help with gifts for their kids can put a tag on the angel tree. Staff members and other students who want to help out take the tags and buy the specified gifts.

This year’s angel tree may have been virtual, but it made an even bigger impact than normal.

Typically filling the wishlists of 75-85 kids, this year’s efforts put Christmas presents in the hands of 107 children of CLC students, courtesy of 68 students and staff members at the college.

“I think it just speaks to our student parents and everything that they’re going through this year and wanting a little extra help and wanting to recognize their kids a little bit more this year than normal,” CLC Director of Student Life Erich Heppner said Thursday, Dec. 17.


Heppner spearheads the angel tree program with Kimberly Pilgrim, program director of Meta 5 Family Resiliency Program, which helps adults with financial struggles transition into the job market and address a variety of other needs.

“Many of our students are experiencing an incredible amount of financial hardship,” Pilgrim said, noting many students would normally earn income as restaurant servers or other jobs that have taken a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So for many of our students and those that are receiving gifts from the angel tree, that may be their only way of providing to their families or their children this holiday season,” she said.

Heppner said student parents have had a lot to deal with this year with having to do their school work at home while also trying to help their kids with distance learning.

“It really speaks to their resilience and their grit,” Heppner said. “They’ve always been like that, but this year it’s really, I think, pushed them to their limits.”

Meta 5 Program Director Kimberly Pilgrim and Central Lakes College Director of Student Life Erich Heppner discuss the college's annual angel tree project during a Zoom interview Thursday, Dec. 17. Screenshot

One of those resilient students is Desirae Rhodes, who made use of the angel tree for the first time for her three kids, ages 14, 13 and 7.


Rhodes said her family has done all right during the pandemic, but things are still tight.

“It was amazing,” she said of the angel tree, “because I wasn’t sure how we were going to do Santa. … When you’re having trouble, it’s great to have that kind of option.”

Her kids, she said, will be excited to unwrap their gifts on Christmas morning.

Though Heppner and Pilgrim couldn’t throw their normal holiday bash this year, they said everything for the virtual angel tree went seamlessly, with parents picking up their kids’ gifts at school instead.

In some ways, the virtual setup worked even better than the physical tree, as the website they used allowed organizers to track who took each tag and make sure each gift was bought. Typically there are a couple tags that get taken but not returned with a gift.

“There’s always a few that had good intentions but then forgot to come in,” Heppner said. “So when we wouldn’t know and we’d always make that mad dash on the day of (the party). And this year we didn’t. We needed 106 gifts, and we had 106 gifts.

A last minute request brought the total up to 107, and Heppner said he had a student out shopping for the final gift.

“Ultimately, we’re a higher-ed institution. We’re trying to teach these students in the classroom and outside of the classroom, too,” Heppner said. “And I think this is another way that we do that.”


One donor goes above and beyond every year, fulfilling not only the items on a child’s wish list but adding in an age-appropriate bicycle.

“I think it just speaks to the heart and the culture of the people in the community,” Pilgrim said. “And this is just a shining example of who we are. And you’ll see that within the community on a daily basis. This is truly, truly, authentically a culture of caring.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
What To Read Next
Get Local


Must Reads