Assembling an electric train set to go around the Christmas tree is a long-standing tradition for many families. But the Neighborhood Christmas Train Experience in Norcross takes that tradition to a whole new level — all to help raise money for the Neighborhood Cooperative Ministries (NCM), a Norcross-based co-op that serves at-risk residents of Gwinnett County.
Pam and John Gibb and Donna and John Galucki gave me a tour of the incredible train setup and more information about the great work NCM does in Gwinnett County.
Trains, Trolleys, Skyscrapers and Much More
Christmas trains are a tradition for the Gibbs and the Galuckis. “It started 23 years ago with a train going around a Christmas tree,” John Gibb said. John Galucki had a similar start: “I had my original train when I was 8 years old,” he said, “and it was around the Christmas tree.”
Things have changed a lot since then. The display that the Gibbs, the Galuckis and other volunteers have set up fills up two large rooms.
“There are three distinct areas,” Gibb said as he showed me around the O scale train setups. There’s a mountain scene, a city display with skyscrapers, and a village.
Inside those displays are seven trains, multiple trolleys and at least two gondolas. The trains are all on separate tracks, but several of the tracks converge towards each other because, Gibb said, “the kids like that.”
There are dozens of scale buildings on display. “We filled it in with the buildings we had,” Pam Gibb said, “then we wound up buying more buildings. It’s kind of addictive.”
You’ll see houses, restaurants, businesses, a merry-go-round and an ice rink. The mountain scene has its own downtown area, a circus and, of course, the North Pole. The level of detail is so great that you can peer in the windows of a home and see people eating their Christmas dinner.
A Lot of Work Behind the Scenes
All this takes a lot of work. The team started putting it together in early October. It starts with putting out the tables, and then they design the layout “on the fly,” deciding as they go what would look good.
John cut mountains out of Styrofoam blocks that were donated by Northern Tool in Norcross. Pam painted them to fit into the scenery.
John Gibb described what’s underneath the tables as “a total jumble of wires.” Each building has a wire coming down and, of course, there are wires for each of the trains.
As you can imagine, there are difficulties. Pam described how the windmill, the building that is furthest away on the display, wasn’t turning. John had to crawl underneath and figure out what was wrong.
It’s always a challenge to contain the water used in the waterfall. This year that was solved with a very thick plastic bag. And it’s not uncommon for the trains to get stuck — usually not at the front of the display, but rather in the most inaccessible places.
A group of dedicated volunteers help out as well. One volunteer, Ray, got ill while working on the display, and had to go to the hospital. While recovering at home, Ray insisted that the team bring any component that needed to be repaired to him so he could fix it while he was laid up in bed.
But it’s all worthwhile to see the reactions of the kids — and the adults — who come to see the show. “I’m not sure who’s more in awe,” Gibb said, “the kids or the parents. It’s so satisfying to see the look on their faces. It’s amazing. We even had some people from Russia who couldn’t speak English, but they still had a ball.”
With the help of the exhibit’s sponsors — Formetco, Playback Now virtual conferencing, Changing Hope Counseling, Decor8, Trinity Press, Card My Yard, Vines Mansion and the Rotary Club of Gwinnett County — and the fact that all the costs to put on the exhibit are covered by the team, 100% of the money raised goes to NCM.
Donna Galucki explained how NCM works. “NCM was pulled together in 1988 with a couple of the local churches figuring that they needed to work together for a clothing closet and a food pantry. We’re now up to 29 churches and a professional board of directors,” she said.
“We try to help people not just with their immediate problems, but we also try to figure out why they have that problem. We try to help people not just survive, but to be able to be self-sufficient.”
One of NCM’s biggest programs is their food ministry. It was a vital resource to many during the COVID pandemic. Other NCM support services include a job ministry program, spiritual support, housing assistance, mental health support and a children’s program that provides a Vacation Bible School in the summer.
Galucki’s focus in NCM is on health. “I’m a nurse,” she said, “and what I do is connect clients who have medical needs with the resources that might help them. We help them with where to go to the doctor, where to get dental assistance. I have funding to help them pay for prescriptions.”
Every Weekend in December
The Neighborhood Christmas Train Experience was started to share the team’s love of trains and to raise awareness and money for NCM. It’s a great way to bring the model train Christmas tradition to Gwinnett families and to help out NCM.
The exhibit is open every weekend in December at 3135 Reps Miller Road. Hours are 5-9 p.m. on Saturdays and 1-5 p.m. on Sundays. For more information, go to their website at NeighborhoodChristmasTrain.com.