News

Mall says bah humbug to Giving Tree

By JODY ALLARD

Staff writer

A new policy adopted by SeaTac Mall could leave more than 3,000 Federal Way children without gifts this Christmas.

Unless organizers of the Giving Tree charity program purchase a $1 million liability policy and volunteers sign a waiver releasing the mall from liability, mall administrators say the Giving Tree will have to find a new location.

The Giving Tree has been a mall tradition since 1991. Staffed by more than 250 volunteers, the Giving Tree encourages Federal Way residents to purchase Christmas gifts for children in need.

Gifts collected at the Giving Tree are donated to Christmas House, held at Steel Lake Presbyterian Church. There, families from the community that meet income guidelines are given a special Ž“shoppingŽ” day ŽÑ usually a week before Christmas ŽÑ to pick out one or two gifts for each of their children.

Ž“The gifts at the Giving Tree are what make Christmas House work. Without the Giving Tree, you just canŽ’t have Christmas House,Ž” said Betty Long, a volunteer with the project since its inception.

With more families relying on the Multi-Service Center for food and emergency assistance this year, Nancy Hohenstein, director of community relations, said the demand for Christmas House is also expected to rise.

Last year, more than 2,000 families visited Christmas House to pick out Christmas gifts for their children.

Ž“This year, because of the food banks experiencing a 30 percent increase in demand, we expect that there are even more families that are going to need Christmas House,Ž” said Hohenstein.

Although the Giving Tree has been at SeaTac Mall for nearly a decade, it has never been organized by a specific organization. Rather, community volunteers have teamed up with the mall to staff the Giving Tree and transport the donated gifts to Christmas House.

Ž“Prior to this, the mall has always been sort of the de facto sponsor. They promoted it in their ads, their food court and signs and everything,Ž” said Hohenstein.

Christmas House, although stocked with gifts from the Giving Tree, is hosted separately by Steel Lake Presbyterian Church.

The Multi-Service Center, the only social service organization involved in an official capacity, is solely responsible for screening families for eligibility.

ItŽ’s the unconventional nature of the project that Hohenstein said makes it impossible for any one group to shoulder the liability for the Giving Tree.

Ž“If you assume the liability for the project then you pretty much have to have some kind of control over it,Ž” said Hohenstein. Ž“WeŽ’ve never managed the thing, ever. WeŽ’ve just participated like all of the other people and groups.

With the Multi-Service Center struggling to fill the shelves of its food bank, itŽ’s not a Ž“good use of dollarsŽ” to shoulder a $1 million liability policy for what Hohenstein calls Ž“SeaTac MallŽ’s liability.Ž”

ItŽ’s not just the $250 cost of a liability policy that make Hohenstein and Giving Tree organizers balk. Volunteers say they are unwilling to sign a waiver releasing the mall of all liability in case of an accident.

Ž“WeŽ’ve never have to do this. And you wouldnŽ’t do it, would you?Ž” said Long.

Mall administrators counter that the requirements are standard to the industry.

Ž“The requirement of a waiver of liability and certificate of insurance is mall policy for any organization and standard in the industry,Ž” said Eric Mattison, mall marketing director. Ž“This is not a new policy. We regret the decision of the Multi-Service Center to not partner with SeaTac Mall this holiday season. We would be delighted to have another partner to continue this great tradition in 2002.Ž”

In previous years, the mall has included volunteers in its own liability protection. With no prior history of problems, Long said she wonders why this year is any different.

Ž“Our people have always been there, they have been pleasant, and they serve the people in our community,Ž” said Long. Ž“This has never been an issue before, it has never been brought up.Ž”

The impact on mall retailers of losing the sales of Giving Tree donations ŽÑ which Hohenstein estimates at a minimum of $120,000 ŽÑ is another concern for Giving Tree organizers.

Ž“People are just incensed about it. ThatŽ’s not an attitude that a mall full of merchants wanting to sell things wants to develop in the community,Ž” said Hohenstein.

Giving Tree organizers arenŽ’t ready to give up yet. With time running out for the Giving TreeŽ’s usual day-after-Thanksgiving opening, Hohenstein said they hope to find an organization willing to provide a $1 million liability policy or an alternate location.

Ž“Our need is to find a place that can have it happen. If we canŽ’t be at the mall, we (donŽ’t want to) cancel the project,Ž” said Hohenstein.

Staff writer Jody Allard can be reached at 925-5565 and jallard@fedwaymirror.com

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