Come December, the pungent scent of fresh conifers hangs in the air at the corner of Virginia and Ann streets near downtown Mobile, beckoning families to step inside a makeshift lot and take home a tree.
Last week, children scampered down long rows of Frasier firs at the Mobile Optimist Club Christmas tree lot, running their outstretched hands along dark green branches. At least a few adults reached out to touch the still soft needles, too, breathing in the unmistakable aroma.
A young couple snapped photos of their 4-month-old daughter in front of the tree they were bringing home to celebrate her first Christmas. Several families selected more than one. For many, picking out the perfect tree at the Virginia Street lot has become a tradition that spans generations.
Erica McElhaney and her son, John, 17, were paying for a set of Frasier firs on Dec. 3. “We’ve been coming here since 1993,” McElhaney said. “It’s in our neighborhood and it’s a way for us to support the community. I like it that they have young men to help you.”
The mother of four was making plans to put the taller of the two trees in the living room of her home in Oakleigh, with the smaller one to hold all the ornaments that won’t fit on the first. She prefers live trees to the faux variety for several reasons, with the scent of a fresh-cut fir at the top of her list. Her adult daughter who lives in Mobile also comes to the Optimist lot for Christmas trees, McElhaney said.
The main attraction at the month-long sale — the trees — were trucked in from two farms in Leland, N.C. just days earlier. In all, members of the Mobile Optimist club purchased 1,060 trees they hope to sell before Dec. 24 to raise money to support the Boy’s and Girl’s Club on Michigan Avenue in Mobile, among 30 other programs they maintain or lend support to. Members hope to bring in about $20,000 during the 2014 fundraiser, said Buzz Jordan, a local attorney and member of the Mobile Optimist Club.
The Mobile Optimist Club lot is at the corner of Virginia Street and Ann Street across from Magnolia Cemetery, next to the Mobile Police Department’s mounted unit. Trees are sold seven days a week.
Hours are Monday through Friday, noon until 8 p.m. On weekends, the lot is open from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. Trees are priced by size and variety and range from $33 to $135 for a 14-foot Frasier fir.
Members working at the lot on a warm Wednesday evening talked about how the longtime fundraiser supports their mission.
“Our motto is ‘for the youth,’” said Tom James, an Optimist Club member who manages the lot. “It’s really fun to see young people who go through our clubs. We give them a Christmas party and everyone gets a gift. That’s the whole thing. We try to have a good time and encourage young people.”
The Mobile Optimist Club supports the Boys and Girls Club on Michigan Avenue. One perk for the high-school-aged young men who are members of the Michigan Avenue Boys and Girls Club, is to work after school at the Virginia Street tree lot for tips. James said the teens have to be members in good standing to qualify for the part-time positions.
Roy Davis, 17, a student at Williamson High School, has been volunteering at the Virginia Street site for three years. He stood near the edge of the trees a few nights ago, asking customers what size tree they were looking for. He said helping people pick out a good Christmas tree was the best part of the job. Earning some extra cash for the holidays was a nice, too, he said.
James, who has worked at the lot all six years he has been a member of the Mobile Optimist Club, said they teach the teens about salesmanship, offering pointers on how to help customers, instructing the young volunteers to always make eye contact, introduce themselves and ask about assisting with tree selection.
Besides Davis, at least half a dozen other young men held out numerous trees for customers on a recent evening. When a tree was picked, the teen volunteers would bring it to an adult member for trimming. The young men are not allowed to slice the bottoms from the trees with power tools. “It’s too dangerous to let them use a chainsaw,” James said. “Adults have to do that part.”
Optimist Club members cut off the bottoms from the Christmas trees, before nailing on a small stand or a bucket by request. The stands cost no more than $10, while the buckets are $4. Customers are welcome to bring their own stands and have them attached there, organizers said. Hand-crafted wreaths also are for sale for $20 this year, James said.
Once the trees are trimmed, the young volunteers slide them through a device that wraps the trees in plastic netting. Ready for transport, the young men take the netted trees to waiting vehicles where they tie them down for the trip home.
“We have a few people who come in and say ‘I buy my trees here because I worked here as a kid,” James said, nodding at a group of young men across the grass waiting for more customers.
The Mobile Optimist Club sponsors more than 30 local programs supporting children.
Among them is an essay contest for high school students where district winners receive partial college scholarships; an annual oratorical contest for boys and girls where district winners receive college scholarship support; three college scholarships awarded each year to high school seniors based on community service, goals, academic achievements and character; the recognition of male and female athletes of the week in cross-country, track and field, swimming and diving, soccer and basketball; financial support for Boys and Girls Clubs including hosting an annual Christmas party where gifts are provided for all youth who attend.
The Mobile Optimist Club also presents a Youth of the Year Program, an “I’m Perfect” school attendance award, a Boys and Girls Club Cookout and provides sales training on its Christmas tree lot and a chance for area youth to earn extra money for the holidays. Club members sponsor and attend local sporting events with honor members of the Boys and Girls Club. These include college and professional basketball, baseball and hockey events.
The Mobile Optimists also sponsor a Junior Optimist Club at UMS-Wright Preparatory School. This middle school based club has an active “school and community service” program, organizers said.
With its international organization founded in 1919, the purpose of Optimist Clubs is to instill optimism as a philosophy of life using the tenets of the Optimist Creed: to promote an active interest in good government and civic affairs, to inspire respect for the law, to promote patriotism and work for international accord and friendship among all people, to aid and encourage the development of youth, in the belief that the giving of one’s self in service to others will advance the well-being of humankind, community life and the world.
Optimist International is a worldwide volunteer organization with more than 2,600 local groups whose members strive, they say, to make the future brighter by bringing out the best in children, in their communities, and in themselves. There are three optimist Clubs in Mobile and five in Baldwin County, according to the Optimist International website. Those 2,600 or so groups serve an average of six million children a year. Besides sports, essays and oratorical contests, in recent years Optimist Clubs in 35 countries have raised millions for childhood cancer research and have waged national campaigns to promote safe Internet use among children.
Some customers at the Optimist Club Christmas tree lot didn’t know that by buying a tree at the Virginia Street site they were supporting a charitable organization that empowers youth across the globe and down the street.
“Some of our neighbors come here, so we thought we would, too,” said Millie Cross, the mother of two young children. “I’m glad to know we are supporting something worthwhile.”