It started in March, with a bag of snacks and treats to thank essential workers delivering goods to their home. UPS, Amazon, and Postal workers. A little something to thank the ones risking their lives right from the beginning, when the world first got wind of COVID-19 and there were so many unknowns. Then Rob and Ron McNeel-Rulison began to notice the kids. Children who were usually in school or playing video games were now roaming the streets. On bikes, on foot. Some playing with siblings or their parents. Some rather aimlessly circling the neighborhood block. So they started to put out snacks for the kids. And all of the sudden kids began to have something to look forward to. Rob saw on the Nextdoor app that a house on Adderley in 90808 had begun putting small gifts in a tree for the passing neighbors. And thus, building off this idea, the “Fidler Avenue Gifting Tree” was born. At its core, The Gifting Tree is a 20-year-old evergreen named Lola, planted in honor of both Rob’s and Ron’s mothers, who passed away nearly a year apart. Every day at 7:30 am, Rob hangs roughly 50 small gifts from its lower branches. The gifts are a variety of small activities, toys, snacks, games, costumes, and whatever else gets donated.
Over the course of each day an average of 80 kids come strolling by their front lawn. Rob and Ron replenish where necessary, making sure each day to display a new variety of gifts, because of course the kids notice repeats ;). There is something for everyone, acknowledging a variety of hobbies and passions in kids, as well as special specifications for snacks such as gluten-free and dairy-free. So far, the most they’ve given away in one day is 145 gifts. Rob McNeel, an introvert who rarely liked being in the front yard before this, now finds himself sitting there with Ron and facilitating the community convo. A lawn that once had zero chairs on it soon had two, and now four. Neighbors they used to wave to or smile at now sit down and have a beer (or a margarita from the couple’s restaurant-quality margarita maker), and chat while their kids carefully and slowly pick the perfect gift for that day’s reward. “These guys are so Awesome!” exclaims Jeff Miller from his bike. He and his family are on a Friday evening bike ride. His kids can’t wait to park their bikes and trikes and run up to the tree for a gift. It’s their reward for a great final week of school. Turns out lots of parents have turned The Gifting Tree into positive reinforcement for their kids participating in countless Zooms and school activities from home. As for Jeff, he gets to benefit from the “Adult Giving Tree,” a small medicine cabinet Ron brings out for some of the adults, stocked with everything from mini shots and beer, to sparkling water and 5-hour energy drinks. Jeff picks his poison, and the family rides on soon to be replaced by new passersby.
Ron Rulison, whose background is in counseling and mental health, had his position eliminated earlier this year. A bit more of an extrovert than Rob, Ron appreciates how much the Gifting Tree benefits the neighborhood psychologically. The conversation and face-to-face interactions have become a necessity for so many families stuck in their homes trying to juggle work, school, and virtual life via Zooms, iPads, and smart phones. “In the end, this was simply something we could do to help. We had the resources to do it, so we did,” said Ron. Rob and Ron may have had the resources to start it, but the community demanded they be able to chip in. When word got out around the neighborhood and on the Nextdoor app, donations began rolling in. In the form of cash donations or gifts dropped off on their porch. The story also got out on local news programs including the Long Beach Post and KTLA 5, which sparked Venmo donations to @Rob-McNeel. “The tree is now self-sufficient thanks to the community,” says Rob. They plan to continue this on through the summer. As people begin going back to work and children return to school, perhaps they’ll stop it and just bring it back for holidays throughout the year. “Friday Nights on Fidler” are bustling with activity. Other neighbors are hosting a fire pit and a karaoke night. Everyone’s on their front lawns sharing drinks, snacks, and stories. It seems the Gifting Tree has gifted a lot more than Hot Wheels and tiaras. The neighborhood has gotten the gift of neighborliness. As for Rob the introvert who started it all, he gets the gift of being a part of it. Perhaps he’s more of a “front yard guy” than he thinks.