Since 1987, John Deere’s corporate philanthropy has touched House of Mercy in a special way. Each Christmas, the company deploys from Johnston to House of Mercy a group of festive elves, led by none other than Mr. and Mrs. Claus. In their arms, they are carrying hundreds of gifts for House of Mercy clients.
The tradition started with John Deere employee Charley Starnes, who had been a Santa to hundreds of children and an inspiration to many.
Starnes didn’t have a family, and after moving to Iowa, he sought to be involved with the community and help the less fortunate, specifically children. In 1987, he became connected with the Tiny Tot Family Outreach Center in Des Moines, later known as Evelyn Davis Learning Academy, which until it closed, was located in House of Mercy. He wanted to give Christmas gifts to a few children there. When he was asked to help 60 kids, his John Deere work friends helped him “adopt” the children within an hour.
His outreach has since expanded and now includes House of Mercy residents. All in all, over 215 gifts are donated and festively wrapped by around 160 generous John Deere employees. For some residents, this may be the only Christmas gift they receive.
John Deere’s corporate giving focuses on solutions for hunger, community development and education, says Elizabeth Youngwirth, Manager of Business Programs at John Deere Financial and House of Mercy Board Member. This annual event aligns with the company’s priorities because it is developing the Des Moines community at one of the most basic levels: families helping families.
John Deere Business Process Integrator Kelley Emmert has been involved with the event for more than 15 years. She first started as an elf, now she runs the internal committee that organizes the annual venture.
“I think it’s a wonderful way for the employees to give back. It’s more rewarding for us than it is for the kids,” she said.
She remembers families asking for some of the most basic items that some of us may take for granted. One year, one client asked for a Bible, for example. Oftentimes, the John Deere employees go above and beyond what clients request, providing special items just to surprise and delight the families.
“We have so many people in tears thanking us. We love reading through the thank you letters because it shows how much it means to the families,” Emmert said.
She hopes the message to the House of Mercy families is that they are not alone.
“It’s important that they know that there are people out there who care about them who don’t know them.”