If the voluntary coronavirus lockdown Sonoma County enacted Dec. 12 wasn’t enough to dash hopes of a somewhat normal holiday season, the regional stay-at-home order across the Bay Area on Dec. 18 was.
In light of the effect the COVID-19 lockdown orders have had on limiting traditional holiday gatherings and celebrations, a group of Sebastopol organizations and businesses led by resident Elizabeth Smith are working together to make sure children and families can safely build holiday memories.
Smith, who is the founder of Project Whole Child and founded the Peacetown Family Village over the summer, organized a holiday-themed “snowflake hunt” in coordination with the Sebastopol Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Business Association and The ToyWorks toy store, along with the two organizations she leads.
Participating families picked up a “Peace Bag” from The Toyworks toy store in Sebastopol, which included holiday-themed trinkets and fliers for resources offered by local family-oriented organizations. Smith assembled the bags, which included items donated from 20 different organizations, with her friend Celosia Moon. Bags included a list of clues that led families on a hunt to find 12 snowflake decorations in local businesses and storefronts.
After the hunt, families could decorate ornaments included in the bags and hang them on a Christmas tree at People’s Music on Main Street.
Smith said that outside the 175 families that got Peace Bags, many more participated. One mother told Smith that since her child’s distance-education teacher had fallen ill and was unable to do a holiday-themed event with her students as planned, the mother gave the clues to her students’ classmates so they could participate. Smith also said as many as 75 more individuals and families could have participated by downloading the clues online.
Smith said adults were participating as well because it was a free and entertaining way to engage with the community.
“It was fun. I had some adult men that went around and did it,” Smith said. “They were like ‘Oh my God, this reminds me of The Goonies!’”
According to Smith, the snowflake hunt was an effort to make sure the community—and especially families—has an avenue to celebrate the season, as families must make sacrifices in these unprecedented times.
“It really hit after Thanksgiving that Christmas was going to look a lot different this year. I felt a sense of grief and loss that we weren’t going to be able to do our usual Christmas celebrations with our family, our friends and our community,” Smith said.
“I didn’t want the children of the community to experience that grief. I wanted to find some sort of holiday tradition that met people where they were in their comfort level that promoted wellness, still gave people access to local resources, and that connected people to their community.”
The program has been a success and Smith said she has had to restock the supply of peace bags at The Toyworks four
“The number one thing that I’ve heard is that families are just so grateful to have something to do with their children that is creating holiday memories together,” Smith said.
Owner of The Toyworks Jon Gohering said he was happy to support the children of the community.
"For Toyworks, this project represented a true gift to the kids in our community. This was the idea behind the inception of Toyworks in 1977, and after 43 years continues to be why we do what we do—creating experiences and memories,” Gohering said.
President of the Sebastopol Downtown Business Association Rei Blaser said in normal years, downtown merchants have a history of hosting events to engage families and children, such as the Día de los Muertos pumpkin painting event in October and Copperfield Books’ “Find Waldo” each July.
With COVID-19 measures, the retail-based downtown sector, particularly hard hit by the pandemic, was eager to support Smith’s project.
“When Elizabeth approached the Sebastopol Downtown Association for financial support for the Snowflake Hunt, the board was quick to agree it was worth the investment,” Blaser said.
Smith said although this event was planned in response to the pandemic, she intends to keep it going in future years.
The City Council recently honored Smith with an award for her work on the snowflake hunt and other projects Smith has led in an effort to make Sebastopol a better place for children and families since she moved to the city two years ago.