A Christmas Story: Lifelong Friends Take a Creative Approach to Gift Giving

ORLANDO, Fla. – For many of us, the holidays are a time of stress. Part of that stress is finding the perfect gift, especially for those that have everything. One group of Central Florida friends, however, has found a way to avoid the stress of gift giving. They have turned their gift exchange into a interactive themed scavenger hunt of sorts. As this story unfolds, think about four friends, a few cocktails, a shopping adventure, loads of laughs. but also imagine being in view of this timed adventure as a casual observer. I’m sure fellow shoppers questioned if they were observing the beginning of a flash mob or were on candid camera.

Recently, while in casual conversation with the organizer, West Orange County resident Michele DeBoer Nunnelley, I uncovered how keenly creative she was in finding the perfect gift exchange process for her group of friends. Moreover, I learned that it had to be the genuine love of these friends that drove them to ensure they participated in such a wonderful evening. In a world of “too busy for this or that,” we don’t see this everyday.

Nunnelley was in search of the perfect solution to Christmas gifting with her friends Joanne Zappala, Catherine Cobb and Trish Schultz, friends of 40+ years, so she decided to create an evening experience that included a scavenger hunt-style discount shopping adventure culminating in a dinner, but not your traditional scavenger hunt. No, this was something very near and dear to the hearts of many. They were going shopping, but not shopping in a traditional approach. They were shopping for bargains.

The four friends outside of the Orlando Eye (left to right: Catherine Cobb, Joanne Zappala, Michele Nunnelley, Trish Schultz)

The four friends outside of the Orlando Eye (left to right: Catherine Cobb, Joanne Zappala, Michele Nunnelley, Trish Schultz)


Event organizer Michele Nunnelley

“What’s most important to me in life is how you make someone feel. I always want my friends to feel special,” explained Nunnelley. “I am happiest when I do for others. So turning the evening into a experience filled with love and laughter was extremely important.”

THEMED ROOMS: Nunnelley began by preparing her Windermere, Florida, home for the arrival of her three lifelong friends. In each room the friends would be staying in while visiting, she identified a theme and process to let the friend know the room had her mark on it.

For example, one friend has the last name Schultz and is a fan of the Charlie Brown series, so under the tree in her room she placed a Charlie Brown-themed nativity set inspired by the creator Charles Schultz. I mean, who would ever think to theme rooms to your guests? Apparently Nunnelley, who works in the real estate and construction industry, thought of everything. Most of us will be lucky to have all our gifts purchased and wrapped by Christmas, but clearly Nunnelley takes planning the perfect Christmas experience seriously.

Nunnelley also pulled and posted photographs of their adventures over the years so the friends could reminisce. Even the decorations on the tree have a specific meaning.

The ladies were huge roller skaters in high school. So, of course, Nunnelley had a tree with roller skate decorations.

THE ENVELOPE PLEASE: Nunnelley decided to place $50 dollars cash in each friend’s Christmas envelope that would be used in their gift buying adventure.

Their first stop: Dillard’s Outlet Store at West Oaks Mall. The goal, with a 45-minute window, was to purchase the most valuable item in the store for no more than $30. Whomever is successful then receives a candy cane. The person with the most candy canes at the end of the evening wins the opportunity to burst a chocolate piñata at dinner. The winner of the first adventure was Trish Schultz, purchasing a $100 pair of tennis shoes for a mere $15.00 (below).


Trish Schultz

“The best gift I’ve ever received is the lifelong friendships I have with these girls,” said Trish Schultz. “Good friends are the family you actually like to spend time with during the holidays.”

With the clock ticking, their next stop was to a discount outlet located near Hiawassee Road and Colonial Drive called Ollie’s. The store is known for having extremely high-discounted merchandise. In this part of the adventure, the group had $20 to purchase a gift for a friend through a random drawing. Again, whomever purchased the product with the most value at the biggest discount would win another candy cane. The winners of this adventure were Cobb and Schultz, as they both managed to stay under the $20 threshold.

Catherine Cobb

“You know the feeling you get when you can just be yourself? I love these ladies for making my life so much better because I can be me…unapologetically,” Cat Cobb said. “We care about each other so much and we think of things to help each other.”


The four friends enjoy a wrap-up dinner together. (l-r) Trish Schultz, Michele Nunnelley, Catherine Cobb and Joanne Zappala

The four friends enjoy a wrap-up dinner together. (l-r, clockwise) Trish Schultz, Michele Nunnelley, Catherine Cobb and Joanne Zappala

The reason I wanted to share this story is simple. In a complex world of political division and various stresses that surround relationships and the holidays, these ladies found a way to put that all aside in the desire to be with each other surrounded by their memories and love for each other. Rarely do we see friendships last this long and certainly rarely do we see such creativity to celebrate their history. Oh, sure, many of us would be like, “I would never go to such lengths.”

But think about it. What if you did? What if the next year someone isn’t seated at the table? What if life throws you a curveball you didn’t expect? We are reminded every day how short life truly is. Let their celebration be a motivator for you to plan your own special memory with friends. One that puts your stamp on the love you share with those close to you. You can’t put a price on that. Then again, why would you?

Merry Christmas everyone! 2019 is just around the corner. It’s YOUR turn to plan YOUR adventure! Success is all in the details.


Randy Ross is a political contributor for Florida National News. |


  1. Trish Schultz Reply

    Thank you Randy so much l for sharing Our FUN Holiday adventure that Michele created for her Friends… I’m so blessed to have her and all the girls in my life. The sad note is that we were missing 1 Dear Friend, Donna Connell Burkey, in our Group who was with her family! She was misssed!!!

  2. Judian Guimbellot Reply

    Hi Randy,
    Enjoyed your writeup about Michele and friend, you caught the essence of friendship. Thanki you for sharing her Christmas with friends.

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