Watch CBS News

Milpitas Woman Leads Nonprofit Bringing Holiday Generosity to Those in Need

MILPITAS (CBS SF) -- In three borrowed Sunnyvale warehouses that almost look and feel like Santa's workshop, countless toys are lined up, ready to be wrapped and delivered to people in need. This is where Family Giving Tree is gearing up for their 31st holiday season.

Jennifer Cullenbine, dressed up as the Queen Elf, leads the massive operation with her pup Daisy at her side.

"I'm here to inspire people to help people," Cullenbine said.

She co-founded the Family Giving Tree in 1990. This year, the Milpitas-based nonprofit is granting holiday wishes to 40,000 low income folks all over the Bay Area.

Aura Vega has volunteered with Cullenbine for years.

"She's an angel. She takes care of everybody," Vega said.

The Family Giving Tree works with 300 agencies to ask for their clients' wish lists, and partners with 550 individuals and businesses to purchase the requested gifts.

About 85 percent of the gifts are for kids. But wishes are also granted for adults - those who are unhoused, and senior citizens.

The idea for the giving tree came out of an assignment in the last class Cullenbine needed to take before earning her Master of Business Administration from San Jose State University.

The topic: do something to add value to someone's life.

"I suggested that we do a family giving tree and try to help a bunch of children in East Palo Alto," she said.

However, "the class shot the idea down," she said.

At the urging of a classmate, Cullenbine went ahead and did it anyway.

The first year, 28 companies helped fulfill wishes for more than 200 children.

"I got a little boy. He was 4 years old. His name was Luis. He asked for pillows. I said, 'Pillows in bed to sleep?' He said, 'Yes, pillows.'"

The boy's grandmother explained.

"She said Luis, his mother and his sister sleep on the floor so he wanted pillows for them, so that was when I knew I would do this for the rest of my life," Cullenbine explained.

"It's heartwarming," said Beverly Larkins.

Larkins helps her son raise triplets. They have received gifts from the Family Giving Tree for the last three years.

The 10-year-old girls have felt so blessed by their sponsors' generosity, they're inspired to give their time volunteering at their church.

"When grandma's long gone, they'll have this experience, and they'll never forget it," Larkins said.

The nonprofit also takes annual wish lists to distribute tens of thousands of backpacks with supplies, so Jennifer and her 8,000 volunteers share the spirit of giving year round.

"Basically the lesson was people will help if you ask them," Cullenbine explained.

So for making two million wishes come true over three decades of the Family Giving Tree, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Jennifer Cullenbine.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.