A Merry Time at The Merry Market

Every December Katy’s Girl Scout troop (a special interest group for middle and high schoolers called Gamma Gamma Sigma) does a volunteer project and then has a party. Last year they did a book and pajama drive for foster children so that just entailed getting together to sort things out. Then they went to a nearby Main Event for bowling. Organizing both this year turned out to be a challenge and the party never did happen. The girls voted on Main Event again but then it turned out only two girls could actually make it. For the project, the leader, Ms. Kim, called place after place and everyone wanted volunteers 18 or older. She found one that would take 16 and older but that’s not even most of the girls. The organization decided they could work in our younger girls after all, everything was signed, the background checks sent in, then they said “no, we can’t”. So she was at a loss and posted an update on the troop’s GroupMe. I was in the car driving and Katy was in the front seat messing with her phone when she saw the messages. She asked if I had any ideas of places the girls could volunteer. My first thought was North Fulton Community Charities (a local organization with a  food bank and thrift store close by where the party was originally going to be) as they take any and all volunteers of pretty much any age. Then I thought of Norcross Cooperative Ministries Merry Market. NCM is a pretty good-sized faith-based charity that provides all kinds of help all year round. In December they do a big toy drive and a nearby church hosts their Merry Market. I only know about this because our church has a toy drive for them and we have a member who is very involved with NCM so our church provides a lot of volunteers. Katy posted the links to both andMs.  Kim contacted NCM and got us signed up for The Merry Market. They do take younger volunteers but everyone under 18 has to be paired up with an adult (even if that adult has only been 18 for three days). We have two 18-year-olds in the troop (Katy and another girl named Georgia) and had enough moms and leaders to make that work. So that was going to work out.

We had to be at the church at 7:30 a.m. for an orientation. The way it works is each family that signs up comes and is teamed with a volunteer or two to shop for their children. Most charities, you get a bag of pre-selected items but this organization allows parents to pick.  They have a child-care area with games and activities for the children and teens while their parents shop. So all the shopping helpers wait in line and are assigned to families as they come in. Our group waited probably close to an hour, they had lots of volunteers. Merry Market runs for four days and this year served 550 families.

Before we got in line we decided to get a photo with Santa.  He said he would love to take a picture with the Girl Scouts.

Katy and some of the girls while waiting in line.

Katy teamed up with Nazyia, another troop member, and I teamed up with a sweet girl named Taylor. Taylor’s mom was there, too, but she was paired with Taylor’s sister. Taylor and I were the first of the Gamma group to be assigned a family. It was a mom, dad and two of the four children that were signed up. Before shopping there was a Christmas program everyone had to go to that started about every 20 minutes. While we were waiting on the next program we went to see Santa and get a snack and I went over the procedure with mom. With four kids I asked if she wanted to divide and conquer and have dad shop for two and she said “he doesn’t know anything!”. Dad’s usually don’t. She said she had gotten gifts from NCM before but she just got a bag of things. She had never done the shopping set-up before. I assured her it was my first time and I didn’t know what I was doing, either.

The program was fun. We sang Jingle Bells and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. They had a team of “strong men” to entertain. I’ve forgotten their names and the name of their act. They bent steel, ripped a deck of cards in half (can’t find phone books anymore) and rolled up a frying pan.

Whoa, so strong!

Check it out, he’s rolling up a frying pan! He said he was going to take it back to Wal-Mart and see if they would honor their return policy!

For the grand finale, the one guy went out in the aisle and squeezed a full can of diet Sprite. (No sugar to get sticky and nothing to stain). He actually did two, one in each aisle.

And he jumped up on a chair right next to Katy!

That’s Sprite flying through the air. Ms. Kim (who took this picture) got wet.

After they destroyed a few things and got people and carpet all wet, one of the men (not the Sprite squeezer) gave a testimony. He spoke Spanish and alternated between English and Spanish.

Following the program the children went out one door to their activities and parents went out another door to shop.

We had to wait in line to get into the market. Each parent gets a garbage bag for each child to put things in. The way it works is the toys are all displayed and they are each given a point value. Parents were allowed to pick 11 points worth of toys for each child. And you couldn’t share points between kids. So you couldn’t buy your two year old just a few things and transfer points to your 8-year-old.

I really didn’t know what to expect when we walked in.

Wow! Loads of Barbie and Lego. Lots of little kid toys but the 11 and up section really didn’t have as much.

Unless you wanted a hair dryer! There was also a table full of Ax gift sets.

We started in the 3-5 area for their five-year-old daughter. Nearly everything was three points and there were some nice one-point things, too, so that 11 points went a long way and she is going to be one happy little girl on Christmas.

Games and crafts. There was also a whole display of just Frozen things.

I didn’t get a picture but there were two of those round tables stacked high with Barbies.

Then we were off to the 6-10 area for their eight-year-old son. That area was loaded with Lego and science sets, a whole table of Nerf and some sports equipment. I didn’t get a real good look at the girl items. His bag was pretty easy to fill, too. A Wiffle bat and ball set was one point. The older boys — 11 and 12 —  were tricky. There wasn’t nearly as much for 11 and older. People tend to prefer to buy for younger kids and older kid stuff is more expensive, too. There was a good selection of Under Armor shirts and hoodies, earbuds and wireless speakers and some bigger table-top games like ping pong or air hockey. A girl table was full of jewelry and such. The items were also more points so you didn’t get as many of them. The volunteer at the door said you could shop from the younger section if you really wanted to so I asked the mom if her older two might like Lego or Nerf or something from the 6-10 section but she said they don’t really play with that kind of thing anymore.

I don’t know how they do the points but it looked like the more plentiful items were cheaper. Each section had “goody bags” with candy and small stuffed animals and other items for one point. Good stocking stuffers or just to finish off that one last point.

We didn’t go in the birth-two section since we didn’t need to but from a distance it looked like a good assortment of Fisher Price toys. They also had $25 gift cards for children 14 and older for three points each. This family didn’t have anyone that old so we didn’t go over there.

And after all that, it still wasn’t finished! When you were through shopping you went to the gym for “freebies”. We went into the entry way and there were stacks and stack of games and big boxes of balls. Each family got one game (the usuals, Scrabble, Sorry, Hedbandz, Apples to Apples, chess) and one ball. I told the volunteer that this family was one little sister and three big brothers. They had a box of small pink balls about the size of a softball so they gave the parents one of those for the little girl and then let them select a bigger ball for the boys. They decided on a soccer ball.

Gobs of games.

Then it was into the gym where each child could get a clothing item, book and stuffed animal.There were two tables and a clothing rack full of Harlem Globetrotters and Washington Generals (the team that gets paid to let the Globetrotters beat them) shirts and shorts. The Globetrotters are big on charity and they donated a ton of stuff.

Then you finally went to check out. We ran into a snag here. For the 11-year-old, the parents picked up a shirt they thought was five points and turned out to be eight so they were over. The original number had been blacked out and the eight written in. The “cashier” called over someone with authority and he said that shirt shouldn’t have been eight points and it was OK. The bag only had three items in it, a five-point UA cinch backpack and a one-point water bottle so it’s not like the bag was loaded down. Then the 12-year-old’s bag came up three points short but mom said it was fine. Both boys ended up with pretty equal gifts. The bag for the five-year-old was so stuffed full the volunteers didn’t even take anything out to  look at the points. It had about five things and one was a huge play-dough set that barely fit in the bag. I kind of wish they had done check-out at the shopping area because if you needed to exchange something to bring your total down or realized you were short and wanted to add something it was a long walk back.

And that was it. I took the parents over to the exit where I turned in their form. There was a table with gift bags and a big box of wrapping paper and also batteries if you needed any. That was really nice. From there another helper carried the bags to the car then took the parents to retrieve their children. We talked a little while waiting in that line and the mom said she really liked getting to shop for her children.

By the end of all that I was tired. I went back to the lobby and caught up with Ms. Kim and some of the other adults and girls who were wrapping up. I found out that Katy and Nazyia and were taking a second family through. Their first family was a mom and daughter shopping for four. The daughter was 11 but didn’t want to go to childcare as she cried in previous years so she just got to pick out her own things. Mom didn’t speak any English but the daughter did and they also got a translator.

Katy, Nazyia, the translator (in the black jacket) and the mom and daughter. Looks like they are conferring about something.

Katy said they had a little trouble at check-out. The 11-year-old’s bag added up to more than 11 points but she just picked out something to put back. Katy also said that 11 year old “knows how to shop”. She headed over to the craft table and nearly all the crafts (friendship bracelet sets, weaving looms, that type of thing) were only one point and she picked out six.

So Katy and Nazyia got them all ushered through, got back to the lobby and took on another family. This family had six kids but only registered five for whatever reason. You could only shop for the number you registered for; a volunteer coordinator told us if someone says “I signed up my children but now my niece is living with us” we were supposed to tell them to call the office on Monday morning and they would arrange something. Well, the family just put six children’s worth of toys into five bags. If they were all little kids, you could do it as so much was only three points or less and Katy said they rummaged through the Barbie table and found one for one point. What a steal! Also, since they were one of the last families to go through, they got more clothes in the gym.

That family got through and Katy and Nazyia were the last two Gamma Girls back in the lobby.

It was a busy, tiring morning but it was really fun. In the group chat one of the mom’s carpooling said the girls in her carpool agreed it was the best service project ever.

I’m glad I thought to suggest it and plans are to do it again next year.

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