Fifteen years ago, Linda Booker, one of Realty Executives' top U.S. salespeople,
As the single mother of two small children in suburban Phoenix, she was struggling to rebuild her life. Her former husband was in jail. Christmas was coming and presents were scarce.
She saw the pain and confusion in her children's faces as they struggled to come to terms with the disintegration of their family. "We were pretty much on our own," she says. "I'm a big holiday person--I grew up on a farm in North Dakota, and Christmas was always a very special time for us--but trying to find some joy in that situation wasn't easy."
A year or two later, she read a magazine article about a fledgling charitable organization founded by Charles Colson, the convicted Watergate conspirator who later went on to become a Christian evangelist. The organization was called Angel Tree, and its aim was to provide Christmas gifts for children whose parents were in prison.
"You know how sometimes you read something and it strikes a note in your heart?" she says. "I thought, I have to do something. If I can prevent those kids from going through what mine went through, maybe there was a reason for it all."
She called the charity, which was headquartered in Washington, D.C., and was told a branch was just starting up in Phoenix. "I didn't have a clue about what I was doing," she says. "The first year, we gave 250 presents. I put up a tree at my church and asked the congregation to donate toys, but that wasn't enough. I went to everyone I could think of. One of my friends charged $600 worth of gifts on his credit card to make up the difference."
But she knew she was on to something when she began making deliveries the week before Christmas. "When you deliver presents, it's a real personal thing," she says. "You take them to the front door and say, 'This is from your mom,' or 'this is from your dad.' And the kids are just wide-eyed. They can't believe they've been remembered."
Flash forward to the present: Last year, Booker's group--which consists of about 150 volunteers from her church, her company, title companies, and lenders--collected and distributed 25,000 gifts to children all over the Phoenix area. Over the years, the group's mission has also grown. The group now also provides presents to homeless children as well as to a number of orphanages and domestic abuse shelters and to adult AIDS and indigent hospital patients.
The group, which Booker renamed Christmas Angels, remains a grassroots effort.
"This is done on a wing and a prayer," she says. "Every year we start fresh in late August or early September. There's no budget." The Good Neighbors prize money, she says, will buy "a lot of Barbie dolls."
Most of the gifts come from Christmas trees set up in about 20 Wal-Marts, Kmarts, and Costcos in the area, where customers are encouraged to drop off clothing and toys. Booker and the other volunteers pick up the gifts, wrap them, and then make deliveries starting the week before Christmas.
Up until this year, Booker used her Realty Executives office in suburban Glendale as a combination gift-wrapping and distribution center. This year, however, the company has relocated to smaller quarters, making a warehouse necessary.
"It's a dead run from November 1 when the trees go up until Christmas Eve," she says. "I get up at 5:30 in the morning and I'm at the office until 2:00 or 3:00 the next morning."
Why does she do it? "I feel like I've done three things right in my life," she says, "my son, my daughter, and Christmas Angels. I feel like God's hand is on my head when I do this."
How to contact Linda Booker
P.O. Box 10254
Glendale, Ariz. 85318-0254