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Operation Christmas Tree giving away 800 trees in Sonoma

Operation Christmas Tree

To get a tree: Sign up online, and pick your time to visit. The lot is open Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 19. Santa will be there to hear Christmas wishes.

To volunteer: Sign up online and select your shift. Shifts are 3 hours long and all volunteers get a sweatshirt.

To donate: Operation Christmas Tree is accepting donations online to offset the cost of trees and decorations.

For more info and to sign up: operationchristmastree.org

The average Christmas tree in California in 2021 cost $80, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Like so many other products, the price of live and artificial trees shot up this year, pushed by labor shortages and supply chain restrictions. Add in lights and ornaments, and most families will spend well over $100 on their holiday festooning this season.

But for cash-strapped families, such holiday luxuries aren’t always a reality.

“(Our family) loves Christmas because we can afford it. But for those who can’t, it can be a dreaded time of year,” said Tory Crowder, who founded Operation Christmas Tree with her husband, Jesse. “If you can’t get your kids a tree, you feel defeated, like you failed.”

Last year, instead of buying gifts for each other, the Windsor-based couple decided to buy trees for families who couldn’t afford their own seasonal showcase. She posted her plan to a few Facebook pages, and soon had 30 requests for trees, which they quickly filled with fresh Nobel firs and decorations.

“Then it blew up,” Crowder said. “And I wasn’t going to tell these people ‘no’.”

The requests kept pouring in, as did the offers to help support the charitable effort, both from volunteers and donors. By the end of the year, they had given away more than 200 trees, with their eyes set on growing Operation Christmas Tree into a seasonal nonprofit.

Just last month, they got their legal 501(c)(3) tax status, allowing them to take in donations and grow the program. They also found a new home at Sonoma’s Haystack Farm, the working ranch that also provides hundreds of pounds of fresh produce for organizations in need.

“They’re doing amazing things at that farm,” Crowder said, explaining that her husband worked on a construction crew at the Sonoma property, which facilitated the partnership.

Finding trees this year proved to be harder than expected. Supplies in Oregon, where many of the West Coast’s Christmas tree originate, were limited by drought and fires.

“Last year we depended on Costco and they ran out,” Crowder said, adding that a tree farm in Santa Rosa stepped up to fill the gap. “My husband called probably 100 places this year and no one had trees.”

But when one tree broker heard of their plans to give away hundreds of trees to families, he said, “I promise, I’ll get you the trees.” And he came through — 800 trees, all at least 6 feet tall, arrived the day after Thanksgiving.

A corner of Haystack Farms was transformed into an old-fashioned Christmas tree lot, complete with weekend visits from Santa Claus. There’s hundreds of trees to pick from, and a tent with hot cocoa, coffee, cookies and sweets. After picking out their tree, families can head to the decoration tent to get lights, ornaments and a tree stand, ensuring every group leaves with everything needed to have a bright and beautiful Christmas tree.

“There are some kids who have never had a Christmas tree, and they get so excited,” Crowder beamed. “They’re getting to enjoy the trees as we did as kids, it’s so fun to watch.”

Operation Christmas Tree has partnered with La Luz Center, Burbank Housing and Catholic Charities to get the word out, but more trees are available this year. So far, 200 have been picked out at Haystack Farms, and another 140 delivered to families from Petaluma to Mendocino. With a bilingual website, interested individuals can sign up online and pick their time to visit the tree lot.

The team is in desperate need of volunteers, who can come down on Saturday and Sunday (including this weekend) to do everything from help secure trees to cars, to setting up the snack shop, to registering guests. All volunteers get an Operation Christmas Tree sweatshirt, and shifts are three hours long.

“I promise, your Christmas will be even more amazing because you helped another family,” Crowder said.

The Crowders run the entire operation as volunteers, there are no paid staff. And they’re just getting started. They also have plans to deliver hot meals to families on Christmas Eve, plus a free pumpkin patch next Halloween and, maybe one day, a free summer camp for kids who can’t afford it otherwise.

“We’re just getting started,” Crowder said.

Contact editor/publisher Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@sonomanews.com.

Operation Christmas Tree

To get a tree: Sign up online, and pick your time to visit. The lot is open Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 19. Santa will be there to hear Christmas wishes.

To volunteer: Sign up online and select your shift. Shifts are 3 hours long and all volunteers get a sweatshirt.

To donate: Operation Christmas Tree is accepting donations online to offset the cost of trees and decorations.

For more info and to sign up: operationchristmastree.org

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