Two weeks before Christmas, the nonprofit Operation Christmas Wish holds a statewide donation drive where shoppers can stop by tables and peruse a list of items chosen by the families in need. Each family is identified by social workers, churches or people applying to the organization directly.

Fresh out of college, Alisha Leonard was spending her first Christmas as a second grade teacher at Silver Lake Elementary in Middletown.

One day on the playground, she overheard a boy from her class say, “I hate Christmas.”

She found it odd that a young boy would hate the holiday, so she asked why. He told her he tries to be good, he tries not to pick on his sister, but his Mom still told him to not bother writing a letter to Santa Claus. He is not going to come.

Seeing his eyes watery and lip quivering, she realized his family couldn’t afford to provide him Christmas presents.

“That kind of stuck with me,” Leonard said.

She went home to her parents that night and told them she wanted to create a program where someone can adopt a family in need and buy them Christmas gifts.

“It’s really a shame that there are kids out there who can’t experience it because of financial problems beyond their control. Next year, I want to come up with a program to help these kids,” Leonard remembers telling her parents.

With the help of her father, Jim Gravatt, she teamed up with the Middletown Walmart and 94.7 WDSD to organize the first Operation Christmas Wish, which helped families in need in the Appoquinimink School District.

Twelve years later, the organization has grown to help children and families throughout the state.

Two weeks before Christmas, the nonprofit Operation Christmas Wish holds a statewide donation drive where shoppers can stop by tables and peruse a list of items chosen by the families in need. Each family is identified by social workers, churches or people applying to the organization directly.

Parents make a wish list of five items for each child and then the group or person who adopts them decides what they pick out for the list. Gravatt said some families will pick out items with their sponsor on the shopping day.

Families told Leonard and Gravatt those gifts provided a happy Christmas morning and they had no idea what that means to them.

“It really helps put things into perspective,” she said. “At the heart of it, it’s really about providing some joy for those families. We can’t change the lives of those families, but for one day we can provide some relief and joy.”

Donation drive Dec. 14

Since the organization started in 2007, it has provided gifts to about 346 families and 1,000 children in Delaware. 

The organizers estimate that this year’s project will help about 52 families and 200 children, depending on the need, how many people volunteer and how much is donated.

Any business, organization or individual can reach out Operation Christmas Wish to adopt a family prior to the shopping day.

The donation drive is Dec. 14 at 8 p.m. at the Middletown Walmart at 705 Middletown Warwick Road.

When Leonard first came to him with the idea, Gravatt was uncertain if their family could handle this big of an undertaking, but she reminded him of the words he told his children growing up.

“I always told my daughters, ‘You can do anything in this world you want to do, and if you can’t do it yourself, you pull enough good people together and you make it happen,’” he said.

The nonprofit sends gifts to 50 troops overseas and adopt every family from the Delaware Women’s Shelters, Gravatt said.

Leonard said she and her dad are the founders, but the volunteers are what make it succeed.

“There is no way we could do it without the volunteers that come out each year,” she said. “Operation Christmas Wish wouldn’t exist.”

Visit operationchristmaswish.org to find out more information on adopting a family.