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Alternative Christmas Fair

by on November 02, 2017 3:49 PM

Charles Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge needed three ghosts to help him discover the meaning of Christmas. The residents of Whoville taught Dr. Seuss’s Grinch that Christmas doesn’t come from a store. And when Charlie Brown lamented the over-commercialization of the holiday, Linus and friends showed him what Christmas is all about.

In real life, anyone seeking the true spirit of Christmas needs to look no further than the University Baptist and Brethren Church’s annual Alternative Christmas Fair in State College.

The fair was born when the church’s Board of Missions proposed an idea for an event to raise money for worthy charities while celebrating the season of giving in a meaningful way. In 1982, under the direction of event chair Nancy Dixon, the church held its first Alternative Christmas Fair, in which shoppers could give gifts of charitable contributions to nonprofit organizations in honor of others.

“We are a mission-oriented church, and we thought this was a good idea. It was something different; a new way to support missions,” Dixon says.

That first year, the event benefited six charities and raised a total of $2,700. Today, the fair has become a cherished holiday tradition for many in the community, raising a grand total of more than $600,000 over the past 34 years for local, national, and international nonprofit organizations. More than $51,000 was raised for 26 charities at last year’s event alone.

Here’s how it works: Participating charities set up informational booths in the church basement. “Shoppers” at the fair can visit the booths to learn about the nonprofits and donate to them. If they choose to donate on behalf of someone else, they receive a certificate in the form of a greeting card that they can present to the person in whose honor they’ve donated. Many organizations also hand out informational brochures or other promotional items that can be included with the card.

“Some people say they do all of their Christmas shopping here,” event chair Cynthia Carpenter says. “We know one person who sends out these donation acknowledgements as his Christmas cards. People also use these donations as teacher gifts, which teachers seem to love, because it’s so thoughtful.”

Carpenter says 100 percent of the donations collected at the fair go to the charities. But, she says, the rewards of the event go deeper than the amount of money raised.

“One of the beautiful things about this fair is it gets people talking to people, face-to-face — people from inside the congregation, people from outside the congregation, people of all faiths,” she says. “It is a way for the community to learn about these wonderful nonprofits. Some of the local organizations are very small and this event gives them some great exposure.

“Even the volunteers representing the nonprofits network with each other. They talk to each other and figure out ways they can work together. I really like the personal, face-to-face aspect of the fair. It’s such a feel-good event.”

Jean Yeatman, publicity chair for the fair, agrees, adding, “It’s also a great showcase for the charities to talk to people who might be looking for ways to volunteer and get involved with their time and energy. It’s really exciting to hear about the many different ways people in our community are helping each other.”

To add to the spirit of fellowship, a soup and sandwich lunch is served at the fair, providing an opportunity for members of the community to meet and socialize. According to Carpenter, proceeds from the lunches purchased are used to cover publicity expenses, so that the fair can continue to ensure that every dollar from donations goes directly to charity.

Another aspect of the event is a Children’s Fair, which takes place on the third floor and features games and a pizza party. Participating families are encouraged to donate to Save the Children, an international organization that promotes children’s rights and provides relief for kids in developing countries.

Karen Moser, the church’s director of Christian education and the chair of the Children’s Fair, suggests that, although the Children’s Fair is available for kids throughout the duration of the main event, it’s a good idea to take children through the actual exhibits.

“I like to take my kids around to the booths to learn about each charity, and have them choose what they want to support in honor of their teachers,” she says. “Then they write a thank-you note for their teacher on the inside of the gift cards. It sets an example and teaches them about the importance of giving.”

Dixon, who still volunteers at the fair with her husband as needed, says that the soup kitchen and the children’s activities were a part of the very first fair, which also included a white elephant table featuring handmade crafts for sale. While the church eventually moved away from selling material goods at the fair, she says, overall the event has not changed much from its original intent and format; it has just grown in size and scope.

“It’s so nice that after 35 years, this event is still so supported by the congregation and other members of the community,” Dixon says. “There are some ‘regulars’ that I only get to see at this fair every year, and I always look forward to that.”

One of the fair “regulars” is congregation member Joe Loomis, who has been representing Heifer International at the event since its inception.

“The fair is a great source of joy for me,” Loomis says. “I dress up like a farmer in a hat and overalls. Year after year, people come back to see me there.”

He sometimes brings a live calf or chicken to the event, which helps to make his booth a popular one. In 2016, his booth received nearly $10,000 in contributions. The money raised provides livestock and training to struggling communities around the world. At the fair, Loomis offers information about how much it would cost to donate a flock of chicks, a colony of honeybees, or a heifer or other livestock in someone’s name.

Loomis is a passionate representative of his charity, saying, “I’ve been working with Heifer International since the 1950s. I’ve been able to visit villages in other parts of the world, where I have seen firsthand how we’ve been able to help reduce malnutrition and poverty.”

Another participating nonprofit making good use of donated funds is Centre County PAWS. A non-euthanasia shelter committed to finding forever homes for cats and dogs, PAWS uses the money it raises at this event to help cover the costs of caring for nearly 1,000 cats and dogs each year. According to PAWS Director of Development Christine Faust, that included 50 dogs displaced by Hurricane Irma in September.

“The money that we receive from this event is so wonderful,” Faust says. “We spend more than $150,000 each year on animal medical care alone, so anything we receive, we are just really grateful for.”

Longtime PAWS volunteer and UBBC congregation member Bob Barry first got the organization involved in the fair approximately 20 years ago. He says that the event has been important to the organization because, “Not only do we get much-needed cash donations, but we get to reach out to people who don’t know much about PAWS and let them know about some of our programs. It’s such a great event; I hope it goes on forever.”

According to Carpenter, the fair has reached its capacity as far as the number of charities it can support each year. The nonprofits that participated in 2016 and are expected to be involved again this year include: Alternatives in Community Justice, Bob Perks Cancer Assistance Fund, Bridge of Hope Centre County, Centre County PAWS, Centre LGBTQA Support Network, Centre Volunteers in Medicine, Centre Wildlife Care, Centre Peace, Church World Service, ClearWater Conservancy, Habitat for Humanity, Heifer International, Hope International Services, House of Care, Housing Transitions, Interfaith Human Services, Meals on Wheels, Mid-State Literacy Council, Out of the Cold, Park Forest Preschool, Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light, State College Food Bank, Tides, United Nations Association of Centre County, Youth Service Bureau, and Centre County Women’s Resource Center.

Yeatman says that community outreach is important to the small but involved congregation of UBBC, which currently consists of 120 active members. This event in particular requires a lot of manpower, including a committee of 12 people, some of whom have subcommittees of volunteers to help them run things on the day of the event. This year’s committee members, in addition to Carpenter, Yeatman, and Moser, are Jean Morrow, social media; Marjie Nye, cashier; Lucy Loomis, hostess; Fay Jester, treasurer; Deb Ritter, kitchen; Paul Moser, setup; Paul Carswell, cleanup; Tom Cook, unloaders, and Jean Hill, decorations.

Their efforts do not go unappreciated by the nonprofits who participate.

“I think it’s wonderful that the church chooses to do this,” Faust says. “State College is an amazing community in terms of how generous the people are, and this is such a wonderful way to help nonprofits in our community. There is such a spirit of goodwill in that room.”

The 35th annual event is scheduled to take place on Sunday, December 3, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the basement of UBBC at 411 S. Burrowes St. in State College. The room is accessible by elevator, and all members of the community are welcome to attend. It is not necessary to RSVP in advance.

For those who cannot attend the event, donations will be collected through the following Sunday. Donation forms can be obtained by calling the church office at (814) 237-2708. More information about the event or any of the nonprofits participating this year can be found on the event’s Facebook page,


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