It was a chance glance at the La Crosse Tribune that sent Mary Sargent on a giving mission.
Coming across the For Goodness' Sake section in a December 2011 edition, Sargent noticed a request for an Xbox 360 and promptly purchased the console and a set of games, making one young boy's holiday extra special. She hasn't stopped shopping since.
Sargent, 73, of Onalaska, has made a name for herself at the Family & Children's Center, where staff eagerly greet her regular hauls of clothes, pajamas, blankets and books. It's not unusual for the bargain buyer to pull her car up to the front entrance, bringing in bag after bag of donations without fanfare.
"This area is so filled with giving, really," Sargent said.
The retired radiation therapist is as giving as they come, having visited Family & Children's Center 80 times in the past six years with a new batch of items. A three-time breast cancer survivor, Sargent pledged to give back, noting "If He allowed me to be here, I'd better do something. I'm so grateful to be alive."
Sargent has focused her efforts on Family & Children's Center, impressed with the staff, board of directors and diverse programming offered by the non-profit, which include counseling, parenting support, mental health services, youth housing and Hope Academy, an alternative education program for teen moms.
"It's overwhelming what they do — so much for so many people," Sargent said.
Sargent came across one such person during a trip to Kohl's. As she unloaded cart after cart of children's clothing, the cashier queried, "You've got a lot of grandchildren?"
Explaining the items were going to Family and Children's Center, a second cashier turned around.
"They're a great group," she said. "I graduated from (Hope Academy)."
On another occasion, Sargent was buying several backpacks to donate and the clerk told her that the center had "saved my son."
"What they do affects so many people," said Sargent.
The kindhearted Sargent makes connections everywhere she goes, and is known by name at several local stores.
"I'm going a lot, OK," Sargent quips of her frequent shopping excursions. "My sister sometimes won't even go with me."
To stretch her donation dollars as far as possible, a focused Sargent scours sales and promotions, stacking on store coupons.
"I love finding bargains and I love having a place to give them to," Sargent said. "If I'm stopping in some place, (things for the center) are what I look for because there's nothing I need."
Sargent takes her keen eye to stores across the country, and inspires others with her purchases. During an excursion to a Kohl's in South Carolina while visiting her son, a woman ahead of her at the checkout handed her $20 toward her filled cart, saying, "Thank you for what you do." Sargent's children have also followed in their mother's philanthropic footsteps, with her son taking on mission trips in Guatemala and her daughter shipping in boxes of donations for the Family & Children's Center from San Diego.
"She has that ripple effect everywhere she walks," said Jamie Korn, development director for Family & Children's Center.
Korn says Sargent brings giving to another level, noting the organization is particularly thankful for both the seasonally appropriate donations — backpacks in fall, coats in winter — and the brand new items, because many of the center's clients rarely receive clothes with the tags still on.
"There is a lot of pride in ownership," Korn said. "Knowing that someone thought of them to have something new ... to receive something like that is a true gift."
Several of the items Sargent delivered to the center last week will be gifted to a family with six children, who came in unexpectedly Tuesday hoping for some holiday assistance. Without those items, Korn said, the organization would have been scrambling to provide the kids with gifts.
She didn't set out to save Christmas, but Sargent seems to deliver goodwill just when people need it most.
"It feels good," Sargent said. "It always feels good when you do something for someone else."
For more information on Family & Children's Center, or to make a donation, visit www.fcconline.org.