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Giving Tree Brightens Holidays for MCC Employees

December 11, 2015

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

photo of the tree with tags and decorations on it

A “Giving Tree” in the Special Offender’s Unit at Monroe Correctional Complex displays tags with descriptions of gifts staff can purchase for fellow employees and their families who are experiencing crises.

MONROE – Susan Plouff knows what it’s like to hit hard financial times. She remembers being a young mother of three children, struggling to pay bills and keep food on the table. When she had to go to the food bank, she said, “It was such a low point in my life.”

Now, a successful administrative assistant at Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) she uses the holidays to help her co-workers who are experiencing crises. For the past 11 years, she has coordinated a “giving tree” program at MCC, where a tree is decorated with tags that describe items employees and their family members may need.

Staff members can purchase the gifts and bring them to the facility. Then a handful of designated staff, whom Plouff affectionately refers to as “elves and Santas,” sort the gifts and deliver them to their intended recipients.

Over the years, the giving tree has provided presents and holiday cheer for employees who are experiencing hardships. One year, there was an employee who’d lost all their possessions in a flood. Another gift recipient had become a widow after her spouse died from cancer. Gifts also have been given to employees who sustained injuries that prevented them from working.

Since she first put up the giving tree in 2004, Plouff estimates staff have bought gifts for about 80 employees and their families.

“People give from their heart, things they have at home or things they can get,” Plouff said. “There are no limits or rules. And the reward is a kind of warm, fuzzy feeling that doesn’t come from anywhere else.”

Her Inspiration

Plouff says her experience of having to go to a food bank years ago inspired her to begin the employee giving tree at MCC. While standing in line at the food bank, a female staff member was asking clients what gifts they wanted for the holidays.

At first Plouff said she gave the answer she says most parents give to those offering assistance: “Oh, nothing for me, I just want my kids to be happy.”

The woman asked her the same question again. This time Plouff said slippers. Plouff remembers the woman giving her a look of frustration.

“Think of anything you would like, as if Santa were giving,” the woman persisted.

Finally, Plouff broke down and told her, “a dishwasher.”

A couple of weeks later, two cars and a truck pulled up to her home. Food bank staff had told community members about Plouff and a local company had sponsored her family and donated gifts for them. A crew of volunteers unloaded two cords of firewood and boxes of gifts for her children. Then volunteers unloaded the pièce de résistance out of the truck: a dishwasher.

“I stood there and bawled like a baby,” Plouff said. “It was avocado green and obviously used, but it was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe I actually got my dream gift!”

Plouff says staff look forward to buying gifts for the giving tree each year, some even working as teams to purchase items. One year, several employees pooled their resources to buy a sewing machine for a girl. Another year, an employee’s child said on one of the tree’s tags they liked collecting rocks, so a staff member donated some from their personal rock collection. Other times, recipients have requested items as basic as coats, warm quilts or bed sheets, food gift cards or diapers and baby formula.

How families are chosen to receive gifts varies. Sometimes Plouff will get phone calls or emails from people who need help. Other times, concerned staff members will tell her about co-workers they think need help. Each gift description gets its own tag, with the identity of the recipient kept confidential by getting assigned a code.

Plouff has never forgotten how strangers stepped up to help her family years ago and has kept her promise to do the same for others.

“I love all the smiles and tears when they (employees and their families) get their gifts,” Plouff said. “The most special part is the cards kids draw and send, giving thanks. I know what each of the families feel, because I was there. And it gives me great joy to pass it on.”

How to help: If you would like to purchase a gift for the giving tree, contact Susan Plouff at (360) 794-3223 or slplouff@doc1.wa.gov or Deidre Lee-Bissett at (360) 794-2717 or dfleebissett@doc1.wa.gov . Gifts must be delivered to the main lobby of MCC by Dec. 17.

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