Courtesy of the AWB

Throughout Washington, the leaders of local chambers of commerce are busy delivering bags of toys to rural fire departments, enabling firefighters to play Santa Claus for the children who live in their communities.

For the fire departments, this is nothing new. They have been giving out toys and food every December for more than three decades as part of the Association of Washington Business’ Holiday Kids’ Tree Project.

But this is the first year the local chambers have joined the effort. And it’s all because of the pandemic.

The Holiday Kids’ Tree project dates to 1989. Beginning each summer and continuing into the fall, AWB member companies and others donate thousands of dollars every year to provide for families in need in rural communities. Since it’s beginning, the project has raised nearly $500,000.

The donations are then distributed to families in need by fire departments in rural counties in both eastern and western Washington. This fills a great need for families in rural areas who do not have access to large city donation sites. For some children, these are the only gifts they receive during the holiday season.

Prior to the pandemic, fire officials statewide would travel to Olympia in early December to collect the toys and checks during a short ceremony held just before the lighting of the tree in the Capitol rotunda.

Following the ceremony, hundreds of people would gather for a program that included singing from a youth chorus, remarks from the governor and a dramatic countdown that culminated with the flipping of a switch lighting a 30-plus-foot evergreen.

It was a festive and heartwarming evening that signaled the arrival of the holiday season. But like so many traditions, it was one that was altered by the pandemic. In 2020, with the world gripped by the worst pandemic in a century, the tree-lighting was canceled. Inviting hundreds of people to gather at the Capitol rotunda just didn’t make sense.

Thankfully, the other piece of the tradition — the fundraising — continued as usual. In fact, it set a record with more than $28,000 in contributions last year. Firefighters were able to distribute toys and funds in their communities at a time when it was especially needed.

And that brings us to this year. Although we’re in a different place than we were a year ago, the traditional tree-lighting ceremony was still in doubt as organizers began making plans over the summer. So rather than invite firefighters to come to Olympia to collect their toys and checks, the group decided to employ AWB’s Grassroots Alliance to help make the deliveries.

The Grassroots Alliance is a coalition of 100-plus local chambers of commerce throughout Washington. They work in tandem with AWB, the state chamber of commerce, on everything from public policy issues at the Legislature to helping businesses in their communities survive the pandemic.

Earlier this year, the Grassroots Alliance was called upon to help the state Department of Commerce distribute gift cards at vaccine clinics. The effort was a great success, so it made sense to call upon the network once again to help distribute toys and funds to the fire departments near them.

And that’s why chamber leaders from 14 counties are busy making deliveries to rural fire departments in 24 fire districts on both sides of the mountains.

They have plenty to distribute. Washington employers topped last year’s record by contributing more than $31,000 and counting this year, a new record. And one more sign of the generosity — and resilience — of Washington employers.

For more information on the Holiday Kids’ Tree Project, visit here.

Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturers association.