Holiday Heroes: Tiffany Gravelle

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The 2023 New Mexico United Holiday Tour continues, as United, the Somos Unidos Foundation and Positive Energy Solar bring New Mexican kindness to every corner of the state. Today, we’re in Albuquerque, meeting with the incredible folks at the Make Merry Project to learn about what drives them to make the growing impact they do each year.

“What I’m most proud of is that the kids benefit — they get this great, free Christmas that they might not have otherwise had. But also, these parents get a thank you. They’re facing these often insurmountable odds, as parents. So this is an opportunity to say thank you to them, and let them know that they’re supported and loved by this community during the holiday season.” — Tiffany Gravelle

Tiffany Gravelle didn’t set out to change the whole world. That’s a tall task. It was never her goal to make Christmas perfect for everyone. But what started as a potentially unachievable goal during a particularly scary time has turned into something incredible for thousands of New Mexican kids, making her portion of the world — and the holiday season — a little brighter.

In December of 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gravelle was — as most of us were — at home for the holidays, unable to travel to celebrate with friends. Despite that restriction, what she felt more than anything was gratitude.

“I am a parent,” Gravelle regales “And I had all five of my children at home. It was a really scary time. But at the end of a day, we had a house and we had food, and we had technology that allowed the kids to go to school remotely, and we still had a paycheck coming in. And i knew that a lot of APS (Albuquerque Public Schools) families didn’t have that.”

Gravelle wanted to help. The aforementioned gratitude, she admits, was tinged with guilt. She had what she needed to get her family through what can be one of the toughest times of the year for any family — particularly those struggling to make ends meet. She channeled that gratitude, mixed it with some heart and problem-solving, and “Make Merry” was born.

Gravelle and dozens of volunteers have made the “Make Merry Project a reality each year since 2020.

DWC: “So, Tiff, what is the Make Merry Project?”

TG: “Make Merry is a dignified holiday shopping experience for parents and guardians of APS Title I McKinney-Vento Program students. These families are facing things like housing insecurity, food insecurity, a technology gap, and more.”

Essentially, these parents and guardians are invited — often through their case workers — to come and shop for their kids’ holiday presents. And when Gravelle describes it as “an experience,” she’s not kidding.

Upon arrival, parents and guardians check in and fill out each child’s name on a gift tag, something that Gravelle says is crucial, if often unnoticed.

“It means a lot. Whether the gift that is going under the tree is from mom, or dad, or grandma, or even from Santa Claus, there’s dignity in being able to write your own child’s name on the tag, and not having someone else there to do it for you.”

The shopping experience is ready to go, ahead of 2023’s Make Merry Project.

After check-in, each parents/guardian is assigned to a personal shopper. Together, the pair make their way through a massive room at the National Hispanic Cultural Center that is absolutely filled with potential gifts for every child on their list. The gifts are sorted by age range, and shopper and guardian alike work together to find the perfect present. These gifts aren’t throwaway items, either. We’re talking everything from LEGOs, to Barbies, to jackets, and even Razor scooters. They’re donated throughout the year by community partners and caring New Mexicans.

Santa Claus volunteers as a personal shopper at Make Merry.

“My goal in that first year was to help 75 families,” remembers Gravelle. “Since then, we’ve grown and grown. Now, its up to 1,500 families and 3,000 kids. The need is massive. It’s something that we couldn’t do without all the community support and volunteers.”

In addition to a thoughtfully picked out gift, each one of those 3,000 kids also gets a book, and a stocking — two things that Gravelle says are a nod to her own childhood.

“That was important to me,” she says. “Growing up as a reader, I think books have the power to transform your world and your thoughts. So, everyone gets a new book, regardless of their reading level. And then, one of my favorite parts of Christmas is stockings. So, everyone gets to pick out a stocking with a few fun gifts. Then they take them to gift-wrapping.”

If the personal shoppers are the front lines of Make Merry, than the gift-wrappers are the back-of-house that makes everything else possible. Over the course of eight hours, dozens of volunteers — clad in festive sweaters and holiday lights — wrap more than 3,000 gifts, allowing every parent and guardian to take home a finished product to put under the tree.

Gift-wrappers get to work on thousands of presents.

This year, Make Merry even got to add a little bit more. Thanks to incredible generosity of Bimbo Bakeries, every parent and guardian got to take home bags of groceries that included fresh bread, chips, desserts, and more. And thanks to the the work of the Somos Unidos Foundation’s United in Health Program, this year’s Make Merry Project included flu and COVID vaccinations for the very first time.

Thanks to the Somos Unidos Foundation’s United in Health Program, Make Merry offered flu and COVID vaccines this year for the first time.

It’s a ton of work for Gravelle — we’re talking 40 hours per week, unpaid — but the impact, and the feedback she gets from families makes it worth it.

“They’re often just in disbelief and overwhelmed,” she says. “Because we try to have really cool gifts. The best part is that they get to pick out what they want to give. They have the autonomy and the choice. They’re not rushed through the process. Ee encourage them to take their time and enjoy the process. We’ve had many parents tell us that they wouldn’t have a Christmas without this program.”

Make Merry Project parents and guardians send their thanks.

“My life motto is ‘leave nothing uncelebrated.’ This is a way for me to actively demonstrate that; to celebrate this community, these kids and these parents, and to just let them know that we’re all united.

When she’s not serving as the “Head Elf” of the Make Merry Project, Gravelle is one of New Mexico’s top event planners, making magic happen at events around the world, while still making a massive impact here at home.

“I’m lucky enough to have found my chosen profession early on in my career. I do events of all sizes and kinds, and I’ve done them around the world. But, most importantly, I’m a proud New Mexican. To leave nothing uncelebrated means we grab these micro-moments that happen through our lives and celebrate them right here, and right. It’s possible to celebrate in great moments and in awful moments, even in moments of grief. I do this — my work, and Make Merry — in a way that celebrates these moments — big or small. Anybody can do event planning, but I’m grateful to be able to do that in a way that celebrates the big and small. For me, that means celebrating others in any way you can.”

And despite that busy schedule that includes events like the Somos Unidos Foundation’s annual Gala, “The Ball,” Gravelle still wants to make it bigger and better.

Every year, as this continues to grow I ask myself: ‘How can I possibly pull this off?’ But every single year, with help from a lot of people, wo do. Every year we pull it off. I cry a few times a year. This year, there were a few emancipated teenagers who came to shop for themselves, and that really got me,” she says through tears. “It was a tough one to swallow. But, the day is so full of elation and triumph and community. It just changes the way you view the holiday season, no matter how many gifts you have. On Christmas morning, (my husband) Brad and I do a champagne toast together, just being grateful in knowing that we were able to help some families, and being grateful for what we have and being able to celebrate together.”

Gravelle’s big goals with the Make Merry Project are twofold: First, she says, she would like to expand the program to locations across New Mexico — something that seems like a project for another day. The second goal is an ongoing one, though. She hopes that the “Make Merry Project” can serve as an example of New Mexicans supporting New Mexicans, maybe making a life or two a little better along the way.

“Brad and I have always told our kids: ‘Everyone can do something.’ That could mean time, talent or treasure. Our family is committed to living that. An act of service, no matter how small, can change someone’s trajectory. That’s one of the tings that makes Make Merry so special and so cool: Even if its just someone showing up for a few hours to wrap presents or donate stocking stuffers, no matter the act of service, it all adds up to us having the ability to take care of 3000 of Albuquerque’s children this year.”

“If there’s nothing else I accomplish in my life, I’m so proud that this was something I got to do.”

Tiffany Gravelle didn’t set out to change the world. That’s a tall task. But for 3,000 kids in Albuquerque, and the parents and guardians that love them, this Christmas was a little bit brighter. And sometimes, that’s all it takes.

We’re incredibly thankful to Tiffany Gravelle, all of the Make Merry Project volunteers, and to Positive Energy Solar, without whom our 2023 Holiday Tour wouldn’t be possible. Their commitment to a better New Mexico makes the Land of Enchantment a better place. Stay tuned for the next edition of “Holiday Heroes” presented by Positive Energy Solar.

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