Santa’s Savvy Shopper

By: Major Frank Duracher

Dawn Ellis is one smart shopper, especially for toys. She is relentless in finding huge discounts for toys she donates to The Salvation Army each Christmas. Her lovingkindness benefits children in the western North Carolina counties of Henderson and Transylvania.

Last year, Dawn’s donations came to about $5,000. The total value of the toys she will buy and donate to the Hendersonville Corps for Christmas, 2020, will be just under $10,000—all out of her own pocket and from “random acts of kindness” from friends and neighbors who want to help.

Dawn started playing Santa’s Helper three years ago for another agency, “but they didn’t acknowledge what I gave with even a thank-you,” she explained. She looked for another entity that collects toys for children and found The Salvation Army.

As a former schoolteacher for 30 years, Dawn puts great emphasis on toys that challenge children to be creative.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t believe in electronic toys,” she said. “The toys I look for have to be about exercising or using their imagination”—something that helps kids learn.

And she won’t pay top dollar, or anything near it.

“My dad used to say, ‘If it isn’t on sale, then God didn’t want you to have it,’” Dawn said with a laugh. At the same time, she added, “I won’t buy anything I wouldn’t give my own kids.”

Her ruthless toy shopping is pretty much common knowledge in the area, especially among store managers. Dollar General, Big Lots and Walgreens are among her shopping stops. She asks managers what deals they can provide for her. “They know me, and they know why I’m doing this. In fact, one manager is a former student of mine.”

A Salvation Army truck from the Hendersonville Corps makes scheduled visits to her home to pick up toys, beginning around the end of September and going into December. Dawn calls the corps office when she has another load boxed up.

Her Christmas spirit is infectious.

“One day I came out of Dollar General with five shopping carts of toys,” she said. “A lady saw me, and we went back in so she could buy toys she wanted to give. Turns out, she owns a big truck, and she even got her husband and daughter to load all of the toys and delivered everything to my house.”

The genesis for her spirit is rooted in her childhood. “Mom and dad never had much, but they always made sure we had a Christmas. We were taught to share and to help others.”

Dawn finds children above 12 are harder to buy for, but she manages to find things like Erector sets and mind-engaging games for boys, and makeup, nail art and jewelry kits for girls. But she won’t buy junk. “Anything I buy has to be worth the money.”

Princess Dolls are very popular this year, and Dawn also includes a few Princess Doll dress accessories. For boys, strangely enough, Lincoln Logs have been scarce.

“Dawn Ellis begins shopping during the summer, sharing her intent with local store managers,” said Captain Sherrie Stokes, Hendersonville Corps officer. “We are so thankful for her generosity and partnership with our Angel Tree outreach.”

Rather than donating money, Dawn insists on providing tangible contributions. She manages to get 70 percent off stuffed animals. Items priced at $20 are bargained down to about $6, and she normally gets toys offered on store shelves at $5 for an impressive $1.50 each.

Dawn insisted she’s not frugal. “I’m just a good shopper, and I just love buying toys!”