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December 12, 2006 > The Family Giving Tree

The Family Giving Tree

by Karen Werkheiser Kolander

When Jennifer Cullenbine, known to many as Queen Elf, first started The Family Giving Tree 17 years ago, she never anticipated she would be making Christmas wishes come true for thousands of underprivileged children and seniors.

The dream started as a class project during her studies at San Jose State University, while pursuing a Masters in Business Administration. The assignment was to create a program that would add value to someone’s life. Cullenbine decided that she would focus on providing Christmas gifts to children in need who would otherwise not receive anything from Santa.

Classmates deemed the idea too difficult to achieve, however she managed to exceed her goal of 300 Christmas gifts that first year. Since then, the number of wishes fulfilled has grown steadily every year. The Family Giving Tree now encompasses 13 Bay Area counties and hopes to reach even more in the future. This year’s goal is 65,000 gifts, and Cullenbine is well on her way to accomplishing this thanks to the community support she relies on.

The non-profit’s headquarters, tucked away in an office complex in Milpitas, has a small year-round staff working with more than 250 social service agencies to collect wishes from children and seniors. Wish cards are printed and distributed to Family Giving Tree “hosts” comprised of more than 900 corporations and schools. They display the cards so employees and customers can choose one or more cards and fulfill a wish. You may have seen these colorful wish cards on trees at local banks and schools.

The real frenzy begins December 14, when the gifts start rolling into the warehouse, transforming it into “North Pole South.” (This year, iStar Financial donated a warehouse in Milpitas; it’s the program’s largest space ever.) In seven days, an army of more than 2,000 dedicated volunteers merrily scurry to sort, wrap, and organize presents before agencies load and deliver them to recipients in time for Christmas.

“We believe that every child deserves happy memories,” says Cullenbine. “For many children, this is all they have. They get to unwrap it and it’s a special thing just for them. No one else has ever played with it; no one has ever worn it.”

Yes, Queen Elf has a big dream…and the reward comes in seeing the radiant smiles and twinkling eyes of children as they shine bright with joy.

If you would like to help, visit for more information on volunteer opportunities. You can also fulfill a child’s wish, online, at the website by making a “Virtual Tree” donation.

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