MILTON-FREEWATER - Natalie Neil wore a pleased little grin as she sat with her chin in her hand Thursday afternoon. The 11-year-old had just finished some Christmas shopping at the "Kids Only" sale and now she could sit back and watch her younger sisters visit with Santa Claus.
"I got my mom some jewelry," Natalie confided as her mother, Kelly Neil, directed her other daughters.
Reporter's note: Natalie consented to having her shopping information made public.
"It's kind of a little tradition of ours," noted Kelly, returning to sit with her oldest daughter as younger Neils - Madilyn, 7, and Isabell, 4 - scampered around the man in red.
"I like it," Natalie explained. "They have a variety of things. And they're cheap."
For 14 years, children have been able to shop away from their parents' eyes in Milton-Freewater. She got the idea when she attended a traditional holiday craft bazaar, said founder Sandi Geissel.
It was there she heard about a child-oriented event in Waitsburg and decided on the spot to create similar joy for tykes in her hometown, Geissel said. "I just asked some of the crafters that were there for that day, and before the day was over I had 12 that agreed to participate."
She shopped yard sales, asked for donations and enlisted the help of others, including Mona Waliser, who continues the tradition today.
On Thursday, Waliser and co-organizer Linda Becker were manning tables loaded with gift items priced for tiny budgets at the Milton-Freewater Community Building.
While shoppers no taller than Santa's elves perused merchandise in one room, their parents chatted and enjoyed cocoa and coffee in another, forbidden to enter the sale floor.
Over the years, the Kids Only sale has evolved into a choreographed exercise, Waliser said. "We have high school students who take the kids around, two or three times and make them look at everything. So they don't buy the first thing they see."
Students also man the gift wrap station, coaxing children to make a choice of papers.
"The older they get, the more decisive they are," said Makenzie Sheets, 15, who said she's worked the sale "for years."
Lydia and Bill Whipple, of B & L Rock & Wood, joined the list of vendors for the first time this year. In the business of selling handcrafted earrings, watches, bracelets and belt buckles for a decade, the couple was attracted to the idea of helping little ones enjoy the Christmas shopping experience, Lydia said.
Although the children are all attracted to anything in primary colors, they try not to bring any merchandise that will later dismay the gift recipient, she said with a smile.
There is no lack of sparkle and shine to catch the eye of discriminating shoppers. Watercolor sets, ceramic animals, tree ornaments, coffee mugs brimming with holiday candy and hand-turned wooden pens - nothing can be priced at more than $15.
"That keeps it fun for parents and kids alike," Becker explained.
Melissa Nielson and Cody Sartin agree. The couple parent four children and all were on the other side of the wall doing their shopping, Nielson said. "They've all been pretty excited."
Especially 4-year-old Alexus, on her first solo Christmas shopping jaunt, Sartin explained. "She has $20 in her pocket and she's going to have a heyday."
Exactly what they like to see, said Ed and Pat Spence. The two have been vendors at the sale for "too long," and it is likely to be their last year, the couple said.
It may be a hard habit to break, however. "We love doing this," Ed said.
The Spences have seen it all, but they have a favorite story, he added. "One year, we had a little boy and he shopped forever. When I asked him if I could help and who was he shopping for, he just hemmed and hawed. Finally he blurted out that he was shopping for his dad's girlfriend."
The event can draw in as many as 150 customers over its two-day span. And as soon as it's done, it's time to start planning for the next one, Waliser said.
Not for her own benefit - vendor fees just cover the building rent and organizational costs, she pointed out. "We love doing this for the kids."
Sheila Hagar can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.