Chances are you’ve probably been warmed by $1 hot chocolate from the brightly-decorated hot chocolate booth set up just outside Santa’s house at Ogden Christmas Village. But what you probably didn’t know is that the purchase of that hot chocolate goes to outfit about 500 area children with brand new shoes every year with the Shoes for Tots program.
Ogden Breakfast Exchange Club members sat in quiet, humble silence at a recent meeting as a letter was read from a local high school student thanking the club for their shoe donation. “I’m in charge of buying my own back to school clothes and supplies, so having one less thing to worry about made a big difference,” the letter read. The student went on to say how much the efforts meant and talked about future goals. And this student is not the only one. They’ve heard stories of twin brothers who shared the same pair of shoes and alternated going to school who finally had their first pair of shoes to themselves, or kids coming to school with socks and flip-flops in the dead of winter, now with sturdy boots.
A Great History
That’s all because of the efforts of the Ogden Breakfast Exchange. The 40+ year-old club has been warming children’s feet for almost as long as the club has been in existence. The project started when the late Jim Stavrakakis had some connections with social services with the state of Utah and had access to names of children who needed shoes. The group started raising money for various causes by chopping wood, but soon settled on the idea to focus on shoes. They started collecting change in tin cans at various locations at Christmas time, said one of the club’s founders, John E. Lindquist. They would go up and down the parade route at Ogden parades to get donations.
It soon evolved into a hot chocolate booth at Christmas Village, even before downtown had a village and it was just lights. There was much trial and error during those years. “It would rain on us,” said Boyd Bingham, a long-time member of the group. When it would “rain” it was from the condensation on the ceiling from the boiling hot water in the booth. They would hold boards over their heads as they poured the hot chocolate for eager customers. That was when they sold from a Coke trailer. Now they have a regular trailer that has been overhauled a few times (even with a spiffy new paint job a few years ago). Ogden Breakfast Exchange member Kevin Ireland said once they got their own trailer selling at the booth got to be much more enjoyable. In the early years, they hauled water from the old fire station, but now they can just get it from the amphitheater and they now have hot chocolate machines that are much slicker than the old way of boiling water and mixing into insulated Cambro dispensers.
Technology Helps Service
Scheduling has gotten easier over time too. Ogden Breakfast Exchange member Marshall Konzen is in charge of that task and now does it through an online sign-up program. “We have older guys that don’t know a lot about computers and even they can use it. It’s super easy,” Konzen said. Families sign up for different nights or groups of friends. The main requirement is that one person in the booth be a member of Exchange and at least one person must have a food handler’s permit. Konzen said for some families it’s a big tradition to take a night to sell together. One family traditionally took Christmas Eve the entire time their children were growing up. Giving back was their way to celebrate. “It was special for them,” Konzen said. They moved a few years ago and Christmas Eve has been a little more difficult to fill, but the club always finds someone.
Ireland likes the improvements technology has brought to the booth, but also reminisces about the good old days. “Years ago, it was simple, a bunch of guys selling hot chocolate for a good cause. Now we have to be certified, meet health regulations, and such – just to pour a cup of hot chocolate,” he said.
For the group, one of their favorite time to be there is opening night – the Saturday after Thanksgiving following the light parade on Washington Boulevard. “Oh, we all have to be there for that and it’s crazy,” Konzen said with a laugh. It’s all hands on deck all night, but the end result is worth it. They sell hot chocolate, coffee and cookies all for $1 each every night but Sunday all season long.
Helping Families in Many Ways at Ogden Christmas Village
The club keeps the price low so young families can get warm and not feel the money pinch too much. “We feel like people can afford $1 and we don’t want people to walk away thinking they couldn’t afford it,” said Kristie Nielsen, Ogden Breakfast Exchange member. She loves watching the happy faces leave with a little something to warm them up on a cold night.
All the members got smiles talking about times when families order hot chocolate who have received shoes. Some will say a big “thank you” or just let them know they are there to give back. Ireland is always impressed when people throw twenties, fifties or even hundred-dollar bills on the counter telling the workers to “keep the change.” “It’s because they know it’s for a good cause,” Ireland said.
The hot chocolate and supplies are donated every year in one way or another, Konzen said, so all proceeds go for the shoes. They earn between $10,000 and $15,000 each year.
Shoes for Tots
Ogden Breakfast Exchange member Chris Zimmerman oversees the distribution of the shoe coupons every year. That process has also become much easier with technology. “In the old days” as Zimmerman puts it, each member was in charge of a school and finding who needed shoes. They then distributed the gift certificates from various shoe stores. Now they get gift cards in $25 increments from Payless Shoe Source. Counselors and teachers from Ogden and Weber Districts watch for children who need shoes and then can “place an order” so to speak on the website for the shoe coupons. The coupons are given to parents so shoes can be purchased. Zimmerman said the gratitude over the shoes is overwhelming and special. His wife is a school teacher and one of her students was coming to school with duct-taped shoes. One day when he went out to recess she tucked some gift cards in his back pack and informed the mother. “When he came to school the next day, he was beaming with his new shoes,” Zimmerman said. The thing he likes about working with Payless is that if parents watch the sales, they may be able to come away with two pairs of shoes with their buy-one-get-one-free offers.
The coupons are distributed throughout the year, Zimmerman said. Sometimes more are given out at Christmastime just because it’s the start of the cold weather season and counselors and teachers see such a need when the weather changes.
For the Kids
Ask any Ogden Breakfast Exchange Club member why they spend the hours at the booth each Christmas season and the immediate answer is, “The kids.” They also love hearing the stories related to the Shoes for Tots program. For Bingham that’s the best part. Both Bingham and Lindquist said it is something the Breakfast Exchange can never stop doing because of the impact it has on the community. “Have you ever seen a 5-year-old get their first new pair of shoes?” one Ogden Breakfast Exchange member asked with a grin. “That’s why we do it.”
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