Georgia Southern First Lady Dr. Jane Redding Marrero (left) and founder of the Holiday Helper Tree Eileen Smith (right) helped kick off the 29th year of the program on Tuesday, November 1 Credit: Whitney Lavoie

The Georgia Southern University Office of Leadership and Community Engagement (OLCE) held a tree lighting and kickoff for the University’s annual Holiday Helper Tree on Tuesday, November 1, at the Russell Union.

The tree is hosted virtually on the Georgia Southern website in advance of the holiday season. It is filled with holiday wishes from children and adults served by social service agencies in and around our community. “Holiday helpers” are invited to select a tag — or tags! — from the tree and fulfill those holiday wishes.

While Georgia Southern faculty, staff, and students are all encouraged to participate, the tree is open to everyone. Community shoppers are welcome and appreciated! Those without a GS email address can make a free account with their personal email to sign up.

History of the tree

The Holiday Helper Tree was started by Eileen (Sconyers) Smith nearly 30 years ago. Smith was a longtime Georgia Southern employee and wanted to find a way to combine her love for both the University and community service.

The first tree went up in Lakeside Dining Commons in 1994. That first year, it served approximately 250 people through five local social service agencies.

“I’ve always had compassion for people who are in need and struggling,” Smith said. “And with lots of help, we made [the tree] a reality. I can’t believe we are now celebrating its 29th year!”

Eileen Smith speaks at the kickoff event (Photo: Whitney Lavoie)

Smith recalled a story from one year’s Holiday Helper campaign that warms her heart to this day. One Ogeechee Area Hospice patient’s only wish was for his family to have a live Christmas tree that holiday season. Students helping with the tree were so touched by this simple request that they went above and beyond to secure not only a tree for the family, but also all the decorations, as well as other gifts and necessities. They also had a small Christmas party for the family when they delivered the items.

“It left a lasting impression on those students, and it did on me, too,” Smith said. “And there are hundreds more stories like that from this program over the years. I tell people, ‘Catch the spirit, and pass it on.'”

Continuing the holiday tradition

Since Smith founded the tree, the reach of the program has grown exponentially. The tradition continues this year, with the 2022 Holiday Helper Tree having 792 wish tags that will go to individuals served by 25 different community agencies in both Statesboro and Savannah.

“We are so excited to be celebrating another season of the Holiday Helper Tree,” said Emily Tanner, coordinator of the program from OLCE. “It’s a great way to give back and to help people.”

Tanner introduced Dr. Jane Redding Marrero, Georgia Southern’s First Lady, as the special guest for the kickoff and tree lighting.

Marrero reminded those in attendance to count their blessings and remember the season of thanksgiving as they prepare to support this year’s tree.

“Each of those tags is a person, a family, a need,” she said. “It’s time to give of our resources and to serve and to encourage.”

Dr. Jane Redding Marrero lights the tree with the help of Statesboro Head Start (Photo: Whitney Lavoie)

Noting that the Holiday Helper Tree is the longest standing holiday tradition at Georgia Southern, Marrero also remarked on its expansion over the years.

“Our university is connected in a beautiful way to each of our communities,” she said of both Statesboro and Savannah. “The Holiday Helper Tree is just one of the many ways we continue to grow and serve our communities.”

Marrero then welcomed the “cutest and sweetest” guests at the event, the children of Statesboro Head Start, to help her count down to the lighting of the tree.

Once the lights were on, the Head Start students took to the stage for adorable renditions of Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Jingle Bell Rock.

Statesboro Head Start students helped the crowd get into the holiday spirit — see the video of their performance at the end of the article! (Photo: Whitney Lavoie)

Three Tree Coffee and Jonny Boy Cookies provided refreshments for the event, and Tanner also thanked the Russell Union Facilities team and the Georgia Southern IT Department for their assistance in making both the event and the virtual tree possible.

Buying and delivering gifts

Those interested in shopping for the tree should make their tag selection(s) on the website, at which time they will receive additional information about how to ship the gifts. All gifts should be mailed no later than December 2. Shoppers are asked to update their delivery confirmation in the system once the gifts have been shipped.

The preferred method for delivering gifts is direct shipment to the agencies; however, gifts may be dropped off at the agencies if necessary. If dropping off gifts, Georgia Southern requests that you contact the agency first to make arrangements.

The other option is to drop the gifts off at the OLCE (Russell Union Suite 1056 on the Statesboro Campus; Student Union Suite D234 on the Armstrong Campus). Please email Emily (etanner@georgiasouthern.edu) prior to dropping off.

The Holiday Helper Tree is located in the Russell Union Commons. All gift tags on the tree contain a QR code that will take you to the virtual tree, where you can select a tag (Photo: Whitney Lavoie)

OLCE will also be collecting donations of gift wrapping supplies (paper, bags, bows, tape, etc.) to give to the partner agencies so they can wrap the gifts. Those may be dropped off at OLCE Monday-Friday from 8am to 5pm.

Complete information on the Holiday Helper Tree is available here. If you have questions, please contact the OLCE at (912) 478-1435 or leader@georgiasouthern.edu.

Be the GRICE GOOD in this season and fulfill a wish from the Holiday Helper Tree today! A small gesture can go a long way in helping someone have a happy holiday season. It is truly better to give than to receive.

Whitney Lavoie

Whitney Turner Lavoie is a Statesboro native and freelance writer/editor. She is an active volunteer with her children’s school PTO and Girl Scouts of America. Whitney previously worked in health communications...