Kara Smith receives her “Galentine’s” Day gifts from Brennan Massage & Spa in Brookfield and Buckledown Brewery in Lyons via fellow gift exchange participant Melissa Squeo last month. (Provided)

When social distancing became the norm due to the coronavirus pandemic, everyone found themselves yearning for a way to safely connect with others.

For many, it was not until they were discouraged from daily interactions with others that they realized in-person time spent with family, friends and neighbors was such a vital part of their lives.

For one group of local moms, what started as a simple act of finding a creative way to maintain contact with one another and lift spirits during the pandemic turned into a monthly gift exchange, fostering both the importance of heartfelt connections and good will. 

It began last October, when Brookfield resident and Hollywood Elementary School parent Kim Eddy spoke virtually with other parents both about how much they missed having meaningful in-person interaction, and how at-home learning, working from home and social distancing left many of them feeling alone and stressed.

It was then when she came up with a novel idea.

With Halloween fast approaching, Eddy decided to loop other Hollywood parents into a Halloween gift exchange, where moms would join a text chain, share a list of their favorite things, get paired with another school mom, shop locally and surprise one another with a hand-picked gift.

“The whole reason it started was just friends missing each other, having a need to feel connected to one another, having that sense of giving and the sense of receiving, and having surprises,” Eddy said.

To organize the exchange, Eddy set up a Google doc for people to sign up and share their likes and dislikes. From there, she randomly assigned each person to another, emailing each party and letting them know their gift recipient and informing them of the $20 price limit.

From there, the moms purchased gifts and delivered them, with photos of the gift openings shared in group text messages.

As of the group’s most recent exchange for Valentine’s Day — dubbed “Galantine’s” — the total number of participants was up to 17.

According to Eddy, what makes the group special is that the moms were not necessarily even a tight group of friends at the beginning of the exchange in the fall. Some didn’t even know one another beforehand, and through word of mouth, she says, the activity has become a fun way to connect with both neighbors and new area parents. 

While the gift exchange was originally meant to be a one- or two-time thing, Eddy says the group enjoyed it so much that after a Thanksgiving exchange, they continued to host one for Christmas, Valentine’s Day and for the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day holiday.  

Naturally, Eddy says, the gift shopping turned into an adventure, seeking items from local vendors and small businesses to finding a way to say ‘thank you’ to local business owners, especially during the trying times of a pandemic.

During each exchange, the moms have worked to purchase gifts from local vendors based on the specific interests of the others in the group. The goal became to purchase local jewelry, desserts, flowers, soaps and other gifts all in either Brookfield, Riverside or the immediate surrounding suburbs. 

This month, gifts featured items from places like Riverside’s The Seed, Quincy Street Distillery, Aunt Diana’s, Hilary’s Soapbox and Brookfield’s For the Birds, Laura Atwood Studio, Fill My Jar, Betty’s Flowers and Loca Mocha Cafe. 

“It’s more rewarding than those generic monthly subscription boxes.”

Tess Lesniak

“If anything, we wanted everyone introducing the rest of the group to a place they might not know of, so we were welcoming any kind of local small business,” Eddy said. “It makes you feel really appreciative and appreciated and connected to your community. We love our wonderful local businesses and we want to help them succeed.”

For Brookfield resident and Hollywood parent Tess Lesniak, the gift exchange has been a happy distraction during the pandemic.

“I like participating because it’s more rewarding than those generic monthly subscription boxes,” she said. “We receive a custom gift but, even better, we get to give a hand-picked gift. In our text thread, we can see the participants’ excitement and get recommendations on new items to try.”

Fellow Hollywood mom Callie Thompson, of Riverside, agrees that both the excitement in gifting, along with socializing, has been an important way to keep community connections alive. 

“School drop-off and pickup socialization disappeared along with everything else because of the pandemic,” Thompson said. “Taking it to the next level by deciding to spend our money locally is just another reason why I love these moms so much.”

As for what the longevity of the gift exchange, Eddy says most of the moms are dedicated to continuing the exchange around major holidays, so long as interest remains within the Hollywood community.