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Julie Gaver’s Garden For Giving

by Yvonne Butts-Mitchell + photos by John Kuhn, John Kuhn Photography

Garden for Giving

Julie Gaver's passions coalesce in a charitable event with fashionable goals.

When Julie Gaver published her first collection of stories, Must Love Shoes, she really hadn’t envisioned how that title would translate into a theme for an annual event to benefit children. She is invested in the Frederick and Washington County communities, not just as an author, speaker and consultant but as a connector and active volunteer. It was that involvement that sparked an idea and powered an effort that has channeled more than 1,100 pairs of new shoes to needy children in both communities.

“My book sales had been doing very well and I really began to feel I wanted it to be something more; I wanted it to stand for something,” Julie recalls. “Things happen serendipitously and that’s when I found myself sitting across the desk from Anne Martin, the director of Children in Need in Hagerstown, during her interview as a candidate for Leadership Washington County.”

Anne remembers the moment, too. “I was hoping to get a scholarship for Leadership,” says Anne. “Julie was chair of the program at the time and she asked me then if my agency would be able to fund my involvement if I didn’t get the scholarship. A light bulb came on for Julie when I responded that I didn’t know because that money would buy an awful lot of children’s shoes.”

That snippet of conversation led Julie to combine her love of gardening, entertaining and networking with women to create a charitable event in her own backyard, a project she called Soles in the Garden. She did her research into local social service agencies before inviting 75 female friends, family members and business associates for an elaborate but intimate August garden party at her home. The price of admission? One new pair of shoes.

The recipients of those first donations were Children in Need of Hagerstown and Project Alive, based in Frederick. The mission of both programs is similar: to provide support for children to succeed in school. At the second annual invitation-only event, 120 guests brought 500 pairs of shoes. Last year, 160 women brought 563 pairs. Although a changing third partner agency has been added in each of the last two years, the initial organizations continue to be the major beneficiaries of the event.

“Julie’s event comes at a perfect time,” Anne notes. “School is just starting and for a family of six, this donation is truly a godsend. When our children head to school on that first day with a new pair of shoes, it’s a beautiful thing!”

Ann Ryan of the Frederick Housing Authority agrees. “Beginning the year with something new and stylish helps kids feel that they belong, that they fit in,” she adds. At Project ALIVE, the shoes overrun an empty office that becomes the “shoe room” where volunteers organize the donations by size and get ready for client visits. “Families like knowing they can choose shoes that fit,” Ann says.

Julie works all summer to get her gardens and pond ready for her guests. She calls on her husband, family and especially her friend Kelly Beach — an event planner by trade — who all help transform her backyard into a true destination in the heart of downtown Myersville for this one evening. “The yard really does take on a magical feel,” says Julie. “We have candles burning and little white lights strung everywhere. The women arrive with their shoes tucked into little gift bags or decorated boxes and they have fun just connecting. I love what happens with all the new friend requests on Facebook in the days after women first meet here.”

Since the premier event, guests have been using their business savvy to develop new partnerships and to stretch their spending budgets. Julie frequently hears stories of women who shop all year, enlist the help of local merchants and even connect with stores that are closing in order to grow the program. “These women have not only opened their wallets, they have opened their hearts,” Julie reflects.

Although the invitation list for Julie’s event has reached its capacity, she has no immediate plans to move it out of her garden. “The garden is just such an important expression of who I am and I love that intimate feeling it creates; I don’t see myself looking for a new location. What I might do instead is hold two separate events so the project continues to grow.”

Whatever happens, it doesn’t change Julie’s goal to increase donations. “In 2014, I’d like to collect 600 pairs of shoes for these children,” she confides. ”I’m happy I was able to tie my passions into this kind of project. Anyone can create a charity event. All of us have the ability to do something. We must use the gifts that we have.”

To donate shoes or other needed items to either of the agencies any time during the year, contact them directly. Project ALIVE, attention: Ann Ryan, coordinator; Housing Authority of the City of Frederick, 209 Madison Street, Frederick, MD, 21701. Phone: 301 696 1875. E-mail: projectalive@aol.com Children in Need, attention: Anne Martin, executive director; 131 West Northern Avenue, Hagerstown, MD, 21740. Phone: 301 671 2014. E-mail: childreninneed@myactv.net.