Auburn family sees both sides of the Christmas basket

Program has been helping needy families for 29 years
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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The Stewart family has long been involved with the Auburn Area Christmas Basket Program, but two years – unbeknownst to them – they would wind up on the receiving end.

Last year, after volunteering at the program that provides food and presents to families in need, they returned home to find a basket for them on their doorstep – just like the first time 15 years ago. It was a welcome sight, as they had fallen on hard times both in health and in budget, said Leslie Stewart, who along with husband Joe has three children ages 16, 15 and 11.

“When we came home, there was a basket at our door that volunteers had dropped off while we were volunteering, so it was a complete shock,” Stewart said. “But at the same time, it was a blessing to know our family was taken care of – that we didn’t have to worry about where the money was going to come from for Christmas for both years.”

In its 29th year, the Auburn Area Christmas Basket Program is a nonprofit organization that provides families with two weeks worth of food, a holiday meal and toys for children younger than 12, said Phil Rightmer, board member of the program.

Monday, volunteers will work at the armory to sort out donations for the program that serves about 500 families annually, Rightmer said. On Dec. 15, the baskets will be distributed when families come pick them up from the Gold County Fairgrounds.

Baskets will be spread across the floor, with volunteers guiding families to areas for food and another for toys, he said, adding that it’s common for 100-200 people to volunteer their time that day.

“Seeing kids get bicycles that they weren’t expecting is wonderful,” he said.

Theresa Anderson, who has volunteered for 16 years with the basket program, said her most touching memory came when a young girl was able to get a bike, when they originally didn’t have one available for her.

“She just cried and was so sad because that’s all she wanted,” said Anderson, a senior branch office administrator for Edward Jones Investments. “At the end of the day, we had one bike left over and it was her size – a girl’s bike. … We went and delivered the bike to her at her home and the whole family sat and cried.”

After Christmas, Anderson’s daughter drove past their house one day and saw the girl riding her bike.

“Those kind of things touch you, and you can’t not be affected by them,” Anderson said.

The Stewart family knows what it’s like to be on both sides of the basket.

Joe Stewart had a heart attack last year and corresponding surgery that left him out of work for three months, and three days after he returned, he suffered another one, putting him on disability, Leslie Stewart said. Leslie herself has been hospitalized numerous times the past three years with an affliction doctors have yet to diagnose, she said.

Every year, their children especially look forward to helping out with the baskets, she added.

“My husband is helping with the bicycle department this year, and my kids will be doing whatever they ask of them,” Stewart said. “For us, it’s not Christmas unless we’ve helped with a Christmas basket, so we look forward to it every year.”

For more information on the program, visit


Jon Schultz can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews