Rejected Business School Project Turns Into Amazingly Successful Charity - NBC Bay Area
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Rejected Business School Project Turns Into Amazingly Successful Charity



    Jennifer Cullenbine's fellow graduate students at San Jose State didn't like her idea for a business school project. One million California children would disagree. (Published Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013)

    Jennifer Cullenbine says she is always impressed by how friendly people are during the holidays.

    "I'll be pumping gas or at the grocery store and people will just be smiling at me," Jennifer says.

    It's right about that time, though, that Jennifer will catch her reflection in a window or mirror and remember what has everybody in such a good mood. "Oh yeah," Jennifer remembers. "I am a grown woman wearing an elf dress, elf hat, and elf shoes."


    "I do feel silly at times," Jennifer confesses.

    So why does she do it? In a word: marketing. Jennifer's outfit almost always leads to a conversation about who she is, and what she does.

    Jennifer is "Queen Elf" of the Milpitas-based Family Giving Tree, one of the largest children's charities in California.

    In close to 1,000 businesses and schools around the Bay Area each holiday season, the Family Giving Tree places trees decked out with lights, ornaments, and wishes.

    The wishes, written on cards, represent the desires of tens of thousands of underprivileged children.

    Jennifer prides herself on getting almost all those children exactly what they want; be it a skateboard, a Barbie, or sometimes just some warm clothing.

    The Family Giving Tree has its origins in a business school project. One that never actually got off the ground.

    A graduate student at San Jose State in the late 1980's, Jennifer and her classmates were given an assignment by their professor: come up with a program that benefits others.

    Jennifer immediately thought about giving trees: a centuries old tradition, usually placed in churches, where the less-fortunate could hang gift requests that would be fulfilled by the more well-off around them.


    Jennifer's twist on this was to put the giving trees, not in places of need, but places of wealth.

    "I took that idea and said, 'Well, let's take those needy kids wishes and put it in front of people who have jobs,'" Jennifer recalls, "and that really made sense to me."

    It didn't, however, make sense to most of Jennifer's classmates. They shot down her idea.

    One classmate, though, approached her afterwards and asked her if she was serious and if wanted to strike out on their own.

    She was, and they did.

    The first year, Jennifer personally called 300 children in East Palo Alto asking for their Christmas wishes. She wasn't exactly sure how she would get everything they wanted, but she did, and more. "We ended up with 1,000 gifts."

    It has been nowhere but up from there. This year 300 social service agencies are providing the names and wishes of 67,000 children. Last year Family Giving Tree celebrated the fulfillment of its one millionth wish.

    "How many people get to say they did something that helped a million children," Jennifer says. "It is amazingly wonderful."

    Jennifer says she is convinced this is the one and only job she will ever need, or ever have. It is worth feeling a bit silly at times, Jennifer believes, to feel so great the rest of the time.

    "I’m one of the only people I know who is absolutely certain of what they are doing, and that what they are doing is good. I know why I'm here and I’m not going anywhere in the future."