For the Hays Optimist Club, it’s a gift that keeps giving. The local civic group has been selling fresh-cut Christmas trees each holiday season for approximately 40 years.

Not only do the trees help brighten Christmas for their loyal northwest Kansas customers, but proceeds from sales benefit more than 20 Hays organizations and activities serving local youth.

And with nearly three weeks left before Christmas Eve, the group’s tree lot in the Walmart parking lot was almost empty as of Wednesday afternoon. There were only a few trees remaining, and members expected to sell out at any time.

“It seems like it’s been that way the past few years,” said John Sjoholm, club president. “Our trees, they come in and within about 10 days or a few more, we sell out.”

It only took 10 days to sell out of trees last year. This year’s sales began on Black Friday, meaning the group is 13 days in so far.

If any trees are left for business today, the tree lot will be open from 3 to 8 p.m. It is staffed by two volunteers during business hours, who often keep warm in an on-site mobile heater. That was the case earlier this week, as a cold wind swept through the region.

Customers come to the lot and choose the tree they want, and volunteers are available to help with loading.

The club had ordered approximately 220 trees to sell, which are provided by Michigan-based Dutchman Tree Farms. Several varieties were available — including Frasier fir, Black Hills spruce and Douglas fir — in different sizes.

The number of trees sold has decreased significantly since the club first started the fundraiser. In the past, as many as 2,000 trees would be ordered for sale by the Hays charity. The decline likely is due in part to other local businesses now offering live holiday trees and more residents opting for artificial, Sjoholm said.

But many customers have remained loyal to both live Christmas trees and the well-known local fundraiser, he said, noting choosing a tree from the Optimist lot is a tradition for many families.

“But we sell trees all the way from Russell, Smith Center, Phillipsburg, Plainville, Stockton, as far west as Quinter,” he said, noting even Interstate 70 travelers occasionally stop to pick a tree. “It seems like we sell a lot of trees in a wide area and see repeat clientele.”

Many local organizations will receive funding from the tree sales, including Ellis County 4-H, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Boy and Girl Scouts, American Red Cross, local school programs and Hays Public Library.

Proceeds also help fund another long-standing Optimist Club project — distributing dictionaries to Hays sixth-graders. That program will continue this year with one change. Instead of paper dictionaries, the funding will provide the students with a virtual learning program later this school year, Sjoholm said.

“It’s a good program, too,” he said.