Bethel New Life transformed its community room Dec. 14, into a virtual Christmas store stacked high with Barbie dolls, board games, toy cars, action figures, skateboards and rows of bikes.

Christmas music played in the background giving shoppers the ambiance of being in a store on the Magnificent Mile. And the occasional announcements chimed in touting the best buys — slow cookers, toaster ovens for a whopping $5.

Shena Smith and her mother, Frances, walked into the store with a specific Christmas list: toys for Smith’s 7-month-old son Jhalonte and his brother Jhamonte, 11. Smith wanted to go all out this year since its Jhalonte’s first Christmas. 

“I was looking for baby things, baby clothes. I found a lot of good sleepers, toys, crayons and books for my oldest son,” Smith said — she found several inexpensive but quality educational toys that didn’t put a dent in her wallet.

“It helped me out coming here, not really being able to afford Christmas,” Smith said. “It’s a lot of people that really can’t afford anything for their kids, and this is a good help to the community.”

That’s the goal of Bethel New Life’s annual Christmas store, which opened for business Dec. 14, and 15, at the agency’s community center, 1140 N. Lamon. 

During the two-day event, hundreds of low-income residents perused aisles of donated toys, clothes and house wares looking for the perfect Christmas gifts. The store sells the items for nearly 80 percent of the retail price.

The Austin, faith-based nonprofit started the Christmas store four years ago. It was designed to provide parents an inexpensive and dignified way to get Christmas gifts for their family. Previously, the agency’s Christmas-giving program involved families receiving wrapped gifts from strangers they didn’t know.

“We did that for a long time,” said Bethel CEO Lori Vallelunga, “until we came to the realization that it really was demoralizing for the families, particular the dads in the families to receive that type of charity. As a parent, they wanted to provide it for their child, and certainly pick it out.”

Allowing parents to shop for family, siblings or a child makes the gift more personal and helps parents’ self-esteem, Vallelunga explained. 

The concept also paved the way for more dads to shop for their children, something traditional done by women.

“We call it being able to be a gift-giver then a gift-receiver,” Vallelunga said. “Everyone wants to be able to do something nice for their families on Christmas. If you are cashed-strapped or unable to, you don’t feel good about that.”

Terrance Williams didn’t mind tagging along with his wife, Latrice, to shop for their one year-old son, Terrance Jr. He picked out a coat, several toy cars and a stroller. According to Williams, he’s just doing what a dad’s supposed to do.

“I want to be part of my son’s life. I don’t want him to grow up like I did without a father,” Williams said. “I want to do everything with him from day one to the end.”

His wife, Latrice, however, liked the bargains they found. 

“The stroller was $5. You go into the store and this is about $30,” she said.

Austin resident Cassandra Johnson came to the store looking for anything Hello Kitty for her four-year-old daughter. Although she lucked out, she didn’t leave disappointed. 

Stuffed in her shopping bag were a baby doll, a Monopoly board game, a winter jacket, a watch and clothes. Christmas shopping for the youngest of her three daughters is done. Next on her list are gifts for 17-year-old and 14-year-old. 

“I’m scratching them off my lists as I go so I don’t have to be in the mall that much,” Johnson said. 

Community Bank of Oak Park River Forest, 1001 Lake Street, is among Bethel’s supporters for the store. The bank collected toys at its Oak Park branch. 

“We got a lot of gifts…piles and piles,” said the bank’s senior Vice President, Ruth McLaren “We have a wonderful community here in Oak Park, and they are very giving and generous.”

This year the Christmas store served 400 residents over the two-day event. Also 240 seniors in Bethel’s housing program received personalized gifts. Roughly 15,000 items were donated from about 50 churches, businesses and individuals.

Shoppers were only allowed to purchase $40 worth of merchandise. Vallelunga, however, was grateful for the scores of volunteers that helped stock, shelve and wrap toys. 

— La Risa Lynch