Jack Smith organizes the annual event in which 550 needy Long Beach families "shop" for toys for children, while the children picked wrapped
Jack Smith organizes the annual event in which 550 needy Long Beach families "shop" for toys for children, while the children picked wrapped items for their parents. (Photo by Brittany Murray / Staff Photographer)
LONG BEACH -- Jack Smith has always had Christmas spirit and has long been an advocate for the less fortunate in Long Beach. What he didn't necessarily care for was the chaos that often accompanied toy giveaways in the holiday season.

He didn't like it that families often had to line up around the block in the pre-dawn to be able to secure toys for the holiday or risk being shut out. He didn't like seeing children in cold, often inclement weather, risking their health for some small measure of cheer their parents couldn't afford. There had to be a better way, something more dignified.

On a July day in 2007, Smith, one of the founding members of the Better Balance for Long Beach community group, was having lunch with Janet Rhodes.

Rhodes, who has since moved to Georgia, said, "It was kind of a unique situation. We were just sitting talking about things we always hoped would happen."

One thing Rhodes said she had always wanted to do was set up something where children could get gifts for their parents.

Smith, who had been part of toy giveaways at the park with Better Balance, said he wanted to create something "different from a lineup and toy giveaway."

"Better Balance did a lot of giveaways in the park and it was just a mad mob scene," Rhodes said.

The idea that was hit upon would eventually become The One-Day Christmas Store, which carries a subtitle that best describes the idea - Shopping With Dignity.

"We want this to be a calm and dignified experience," Smith said.

"The dignity is the primary word," said Gary Shelton, a longtime volunteer and local activist. "Everyone who's involved with (the store) calls it by its full name. It's not so much the giveaway but the whole shopping experience."

VIDEO: Everyday Heroes: Jack Smith founding member Better Balance for Long Beach

Rhodes, who did a lot of the early planning and envisioning of the store, said she misses it now that she is away.

Manuel Velasquez has his hands full while choosing toys for his four boys at Long Beach’s First Congregational Church (Brittany Murray / Staff
Manuel Velasquez has his hands full while choosing toys for his four boys at Long Beach's First Congregational Church (Brittany Murray / Staff Photographer)

On Saturday, the store celebrated its sixth year, with about 550 families "buying" presents for one another.

For Smith the store is just one of a number of community projects he's been involved with and helped spearhead over the years.

"He's an idea man who can make things happen," Rhodes said.

A filmmaker who won an Oscar for technical innovation, Smith made a series of documentary films about homelessness in Long Beach and helped organize community gatherings and roundtables to discuss the issue. He ran for City Council in 2009 in the 7th District, has been a member of the Wrigley Association and now defunct Central Area Project Committee, and as a founding member of Better Balance for Long Beach, helped efforts to improve 14th Street Park, which Smith considers one of his biggest achievements.

Last year, for its Christmas Store, Better Balance for Long Beach won the grand prize at Neighborhood of the Year, awarded by Neighborhoods USA, a national nonprofit group that advocates for neighborhood organizations.

Smith and another member, Dan Pressburg, traveled to the NUSA national convention to make a presentation about the Christmas Store.

Unlike the sometimes frenetic free-for-all that other giveaways sometimes devolve into, the Christmas Store strives for a certain propriety. The store is open by invitation only and families have appointed times to visit the store. They are recommended by council offices, schools and other organizations to whom they must apply.

After they are loaded down with their holiday haul, the families are offered free taxi rides to their homes.

"That way we know people from across the city are coming," Smith said.

A volunteer buyer purchases toys and items for the store at wholesale prices, often paying 20 cents on the dollar for name-brand merchandise. Most of the gifts in the store are in the $35 retail range or less.

Family members who come to the store are given free tickets with which they can buy any item in the store. Another distinguishing part of the program is that children are escorted by "elf" volunteers to an adjacent area where they can choose gifts for their parents.

The store also sets a specific time for residents of women's shelters and victims of domestic abuse. During those times, cameras are turned off and the identities of the shoppers are kept confidential.

Since the first year, when the store served about 250 families, it has grown and received help from a number of groups and influential residents, such as Nancy Foster, wife of Mayor Bob Foster.

"One of the things we want to emphasize is we want the kids to show up," Smith said, "If they don't, no one is shopping for the parents."


greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1291, twitter.com/gregmellen