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Alternative Christmas Fair drawing mainstream crowds

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By Vicky Gits

The wildly popular Alternative Christmas Fair is attracting so many people to Evergreen Lutheran Church each year it’s starting to look like the “Mainstream Christmas Fair.” The eclectic bazaar has grown to fill every available square foot of the church, including the coat closet. “The items are unique things you can’t buy in local shops. Most are handmade in other countries. Plus it makes people happy to know that their gift is going to help someone else,” said Colleen Norrgard, co-chair of the fair. Started in 2001 at the Church of the Hills in Evergreen with a few tables in the vestibule, the Alternative Fair has grown to represent about 54 charity vendors. Evergreen Lutheran held its first alternative fair in 2002, and the two churches joined forces in 2003. This year’s fair generated $130,000 in sales for various causes locally and around the world, up from $110,000 last year and $4,000 the first year. It takes 200 volunteers to put on the sale, which attracted 1,200 shoppers over two days Nov. 10-11. Planning begins in February for the 2008 fair. Fairs always take place the second weekend in November. Sponsors include the Church of the Transfiguration and Wild Rose Congregational. “The way to change the world is in little ways. Big change is too confusing. One pebble at a time; it’s a ripple effect that has more impact,” said co-chair Cindy Sahli, who spends 15 to 20 hours a week of volunteer time to plan the event. “It’s helping people help other people,” said Sahli, a former retail executive. The fair gives shoppers an opportunity to buy unique handmade gifts and other items impossible to get at the local mall, plus 100 percent of the proceeds go to the charities involved. The shopping venue is donated, as are all the administrative expenses and labor costs. A typical vendor is Brazil Arts, which sells purses, jewelry and crafts made from old magazines by young people in a remote area in Brazil. The money helps them get an education and support their families. Peruvian Hearts supports an orphanage, and 6 Friends sells handmade greeting cards decorated with cutout banana leaves to help a clinic in Rwanda. The Evergreen animal shelter sells homemade goods. Kay Bohan sold a phenomenal $2,419 worth of peanut butter cookies on behalf of the Park County Crisis Center. Evergreen-based Friendship Bridge sold $9,200 worth of fused-glass jewelry and Guatemalan accessories to benefit a micro-loan project. Now that the fair is beginning to attract shoppers from Denver and Conifer as well as Evergreen, “it exposes people to Friendship Bridge and its mission to people that ordinarily wouldn’t hear about it,” said Stuart Pons, a spokeswoman for Friendship Bridge. She said sales were up about 80 percent over last year. “It was packed. Sometimes it was hard to get around the rooms,” said Pons, who also does most of her Christmas shopping at the fair. “I haven’t been to a mall yet.” Attendees get a shopping bag at the door and go from table to table selecting items, which they pay for at a central checkout location with six computers. The checkout system facilitates purchasing and gives the vendors more time to interact with shoppers and give them information about the people they are trying to help. There literally is no room to grow, so the fair committee is thinking about possibly holding a Friday night preview party. Evergreen High School would be larger, but the group would have to pay rent. The church accepts no money for booth rent and doesn’t charge shoppers a fee to attend. All vendors must be qualified 501(c)3 organizations or prove the money goes to a nonprofit. Even the computer expertise is donated. This year for the first time, the fair added a donations table where people could contribute cash to buy cookstoves for refugees in Africa and mosquito nets from Nothing But Nets. A total of $6,400 was raised in donations. “It’s a way to give back without adding to your stuff,” said Norrgard, who this year asked her kids for a donation to Heifer International for Christmas. The gift means a needy family in Africa receives a cow. “We really don’t need anything,” she said. Donation table at the 2007 Alternative Christmas Fair • Heifer International — www.Heifer.org. • U.N. Foundation — www.nothingbutnets.net; provides mosquito nets. • Christian Solidarity International — www.csi-int.org. • Sack of Hope or Darfur Survival Kit: tarpaulin/groundsheet for shelter; blanket; mosquito net; cooking pan; plastic water container (5 liters); sickle for cultivating and homebuilding; fishing hooks.