With approximately 800 shopping centers across the country, we have a big footprint here at Kimco. But our commitment to giving back to the communities where we operate is equally as large. In addition to the many volunteer efforts of our employees, we’re always looking for creative ways to help give back to organizations that are making a difference in the world, like donating prime retail space to organizations who lack the physical space to carry out their generous acts.

KIDS FIRST ROCKS: Kids First of the Carolinas has been helping children and families in need for over 30 years.

Enter Kids First of the Carolinas. Kids First is a grass-roots community organization that helps children and families in need. Kids First is run by two mothers, Sharon Sanders and Wendy Tonetti, who organize and connect volunteers to aid families with the most basic needs. The two women have helped families in realizing dreams as big as a home and as small as a warm coat. Services they provide include receiving donated furniture and appliances that they then pass on to families in need; collecting school supplies for local children; providing Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas meals to families who would otherwise have none; and connecting families with mentors and tutors to help families get back on their feet. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, Kids First survives off of generous donations from the surrounding community.

That’s how Kimco first got involved—by offering our space for its donation drop offs during the holiday season. Sharon and Wendy saw a sign in the window of a Kimco location, contacted Jenny Westbrook, Managing Director of Specialty Leasing, and the rest is history. Since then, Debbie Vehr, Specialty Leasing Assistant, and I have worked alongside Jenny in helping support this organization, and three years later, the cause has become near and dear to all of us.

We spoke with Sharon and Wendy to find out how they’ve used our space at Quail Corners Shopping Center in Charlotte, North Carolina to bring holiday joy to hundreds of children this year.

Sharon and Wendy see themselves as the community’s immediate first responders -- whether it be that a school counselor told them someone was wearing the same outfit every day and needed clothes, or that a neighbor knew about another neighbor who was hungry, Kids First is on call. The organization started as a medical clinic for the homeless in 1984 but had to close once HIPAA laws changed. Through the connections they made at the clinic, however, Sharon and Wendy were able to continue serving local families. What once started as helping 10 families during Christmas turned into 1,000 children. “We just sort of spread the word and before you know it, someone knows of someone who needs help,” said Sharon.

Because it’s just the two of them, Sharon and Wendy have hundreds of volunteers that come to the store every Christmas to help answer phones and make sure every kid gets their wish wrapped and in a bag, ready for Christmas morning. “I don’t even know how we’d do it without the store space at this point. It really does make it all happen, because now people drop in every day; dropping off a toy, dropping off a donation, asking how they can help. The store gave us a place to be seen,” said Wendy.

BIKE DROP-OFF: Kids First and WBT radio’s John Hancock collected bikes to be donated to the children over the holidays.

This year on the Friday before Christmas, radio personality John Hancock and WBT radio hosted their annual Kids First of the Carolinas’ bike drop-off. People drove up and dropped off bikes, along with donations and other toys for Kids First to distribute during the holiday.

But that’s not all. Each year before Christmas, Kids First hosts a party for 350 kids and 30 seniors, full of activities, food, and fun. Thirty to 40 restaurants donate food for the kids—in fact; everything at the party gets donated as a result of Sharon and Wendy’s efforts all year long. The third annual Christmas party took place Sunday, December 21, 2014 at South Mecklenburg High School.

The day before the party, approximately 700 Kids First volunteers turned the school into a winter wonderland and wrapped thousands of gifts for the children to take home with them. On the day of, the kids that were the neediest, some of them with their parents, arrived for a day with Santa—who made his entrance on a red helicopter. They danced, colored, got their faces painted, viewed a live nativity scene, and ate tons of food. At the end of the night, the children left with giant bags full of toys that were all wrapped and ready to open on Christmas morning.

TOYS GALORE: Kids First fills the Kimco space with toys for the children to open on Christmas morning.

To seek out the children for the party, Sharon and Wendy have people that they refer to as “their angels,” because they live in needy communities and the angels tell Kids First about their neighbors who might benefit from the organization’s services. Sharon and Wendy then talk to every single family that’s identified to find out more about their situation. Some families have ongoing needs, and Kids First helps them throughout the year by providing food, school uniforms, or medicine. Others are just having a hard time and need a little help and holiday cheer at Christmas.

The holidays might be behind us, but the community’s needs are ever-present. We eagerly anticipate working with Kids First in 2015 and beyond.

Follow Kids First of the Carolinas on Facebook and Twitter to hear more about the incredible work they do all-year-round.