Alex Gramling never knew how much joy a Christmas tree could bring to a family until he gave the first one away.
Because of Gramling’s newly established nonprofit, 200 low-income families from 11 local communities were given their own live Christmas trees for free this holiday season.
The first annual giveaway took place in Amesbury on Dec. 3, and nearly 180 trees were distributed. The remaining 20 or so trees were donated to Pettengill House in Salisbury, where they were claimed by additional families in need.
“It’s the experience that so many suburban families take for granted,’’ said Gramling, 48, who in recent years moved from Newburyport to South Hampton, N.H.
“It’s going to a tree lot, picking out a tree, putting it on your car, and taking it home,’’ he said. “So many of the families I’ve talked to have never had a Christmas tree or have only had a small artificial tree. It was never in their means to have a nice, fresh-cut Christmas tree in their homes for the holidays.’’
Last year, Gramling was getting rid of his artificial tree and he called several local service agencies to find a family in need. A family that had gone through an economically challenging year came to his house to retrieve it. The joy Gramling observed in the children and the gratitude their mother expressed served as his motivation behind what would soon be a project bigger then he had thought possible.
“It was that light bulb moment that inspired me to make this a much larger endeavor,’’ Gramling said. “It really stuck with me and was the catalyst to make this tree-giving charity.’’
Gramling learned there were hundreds of families that didn’t have the funds to purchase a Christmas tree. Realizing that he was able to fill this void, he immediately started to create the infrastructure for this month’s giveaway.
After getting his partners in Atlanta at W3 - where he is chief marketing officer for the company that operates several staffing and technology companies - on board last December, Gramling obtained a business license and filed for nonprofit status. His organization, Christmas Tree Santas, was incorporated just one month later.
Donations are accepted and fund-raisers held to buy trees, including a raffle held at Flatbread Pizza in Amesbury prior to the giveaway.
“We paid farms in Canada and North Carolina for the trees, both of which offered us a discount,’’ Grambling said. “The trees are our largest expense as a charity. We funded that cost by individual contributions and corporate contributions from several local businesses.’’
Christmas Tree Santas partnered with four agencies in Massachusetts to identify low- and moderate-income families as recipients for the tree giveaway program. The agencies offered vouchers to clients interested in receiving a tree.
Betty Leary, director at Community Service of Newburyport, Inc., said she was uncertain about Gramling’s idea when she was first asked to get involved. Leary had given away a handful of artificial trees, but she had trouble visualizing how to donate this many live trees.
“I was amazed at how he was very gung-ho about the idea, and I thought, ‘Boy, I hope this works because it is a great idea,’ ’’ Leary said.
Twenty clients of the agency received trees this year. For one mother, getting a free Christmas tree meant that she no longer had to work an extra job during the holiday season to afford a tree for her family, said Leary.
For the Salvation Army of Newburyport, offering trees to its clients aligned perfectly with the organization’s existing Christmas donation programs.
“I think with a lot of people it’s a big relief because they are thinking, ‘I have food and some gifts for the kids. Now I just have to figure out how to get a tree,’ because that is a huge expense,’’ said Donna Sylvester, director of social ministry at the Salvation Army chapter. “We try to make it as dignified as we can, and I think that having the tree just adds to it. It’s like, ‘Oh, they really care about my Christmas.’ ’’
In addition to trees, Christmas Tree Santas gave away tree stands and ornaments, all of which were donated, Gramling said. The nonprofit has expanded: A second tree giveaway was held in Atlanta.
“This has reinforced for me that there is a real need, an unspoken but incredibly important psychological need, to feel normal, to feel loved, to provide for children, and to feel joy,’’ he said.
To learn more, visit christmastreesantas.org.