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Holiday Outreach

Jerri Ann Reason

As we move into the Holiday Season, it occurs to me that many families do not have the means to make the holidays "merry." As important as school and reading is, what's on the minds of most parents now isn't education, but the holidays and making ends meet.

I think it would be neat for all of us to share how each of our schools or district helps those in need during the holiday.  At the very least, it will provide ideas for other states and ideally, we can share best practices that others can implement in the upcoming weeks to make a difference across the country to those who need it most.

When you think of the color red this time of year and many of you may naturally think of Santa’s suit, poinsettias, or Holly berries, yet if you live in Stilwell, Kansas, red means reaching out to friends in need.

Each year upon return from Thanksgiving break, our principal sends home a red letter urging parents to connect with her if they need financial support for the holidays.  Also attached to the letter is an envelope. All families are asked to consider donating to make the holiday season a bit brighter for the children and families experiencing tough times. The donations are anonymous.  This is called the Red Bag/ Holiday Helper Progarm.

What happens next is truly a miracle. Support pours in, parents volunteer to shop, and wrap, and our community is reminded of the true meaning of the season.  All families who reached out remain confidential and our school counselor manages delivery.

What I love about the Red Bag tradition is that it defines the spirit of our school community. By nurturing and caring for each other, we are sending a powerful message to our kids. Every penny makes a difference and it doesn’t take much to impact lives. I’m honored to be shopping and wrapping this year and look forward to involving my kids.  “Big Taking care of Little” is a motto that my kids have been raised with since they were little. In our house, Big means that an older sibling has a responsibility to guide and nurture the younger, yet out in the community, Big means those with abundance and little means those in need. It’s important as parents that we all walk the walk of outreach and charity.

I am proud of our school , and specifically of our principal who nurtures the spirit of giving  in our community. None of us is as strong as all of us!

Here is a copy of the letter we send out:

HOLIDAY HELPERS:

Our Red Bag/Holiday Helper Program is a voluntary service project conducted during the Month of December. Once again, Stilwell Elementary has recognized the need to help make the holidays a little brighter for those less fortunate. This year we are sponsoring several families.

Each family has submitted a list of needed basics such as coats, boots, etc. plus a list of "wished gifts." We will be collecting the money during the week of Nov 28-Dec 2. If you would prefer to send a specific gift, please contact Mrs. XXXXX Counselor, at XXX-XXXX.

If you would like to volunteer to be a shopper or could help wrap gifts, please contact Mrs. XXXXX as soon as possible. Thanks for all your help. Together we can really make a difference for many children in our community.

Fellow Mom Congress delegates share their ideas below:

At our school we do a food drive for the holidays. This year we collected over 100 grocery bags full of food which then was donated to a local food pantry.  All cranberry sauce cans are also pulled from the bags before being delivered and those are given to a local church that hosts a free holiday meal for those in need.  

In addition, our school has a year round program in place to help families in need.  It is cool because it is families helping families.   ~Lisa Falduto - Wisconsin Delegate 2011

If families want to find a way to contribute on their own or with a group, they can always go to the volunteer family's website to find ideas   ~Heather Jack – Massachusetts Delegate 2010

Our school hosts a Giving Tree.  This is an anonymous program headed up by one volunteer and our school social worker.  The social worker identifies families who are struggling to make ends meet.  The volunteer then seeks out donations from school families for gifts for the holidays.  Our social worker distributes the gifts and the family is able to enjoy a holiday with gifts for their kids.  It always receives a good response and it helps knowing that the gifts are being used by families under the same roof as our own kids every day.

Our school district also hosts a district wide coat closet that is maintained by PTA volunteers.  This allows families the luxury of purchasing gifts at the holidays instead of spending that money on warm winter outerwear.   The families are always appreciative, especially this time of year.  ~Jennifer DeFranco – Illinois Delegate 2010

In Utah we have a number of ways where the community is pulling together to help those less fortunate and our public schools. A couple that are close to my heart are my personal Angel Tree Shoe Drive, now in my 2nd year and going strong, and the Zions Bank Lights On, now in its 41st year.

The Lights On program invites one school for each of our 106 full-service offices in Utah and 27 full-service branches in Idaho to come decorate our christmas trees. Some provide a small performance for community members and their families.  The bank supplies cookies and drinks along with many surprise visits from Santa!  Zions Bank donates $250 to each school to use as they see fit.  Many of the schools use it to enhance their art, music and choir programs.

Both are wonderful ways we help the little ones during the Holidays.  ~Lori Harding - Utah Delegate 2010

Our school partners with Operation Christmas Child and there is a competition between classes as to who can bring in the most shoeboxes packed with Christmas gifts for children who are less fortunate.  The winning class gets a special dessert with the senior class, prepared by the seniors.  Not only is it helping less fortunate children receive a gift they otherwise would not receive but it provides our children with a tangible way to participate in the ‘giving’ part of the season which is where the true joy lies!  ~Emily Rempe – Ohio Delegate 2010

Mom Congress was the single most empowering event I have ever attended.  I continuously make sure people know that I am proud of that accomplishment and I’ve done my best to spread the love and hopefully empower those around me.  My husband and I established a non-profit after the tornados ravaged through Alabama last spring.  That event occurred barely a week after I returned from Washington, DC and we felt like we had to do something. 

That work has included numerous agencies, companies, organizations and brands across the country.  Our latest endeavor provided a full Christmas for two families this past weekend.  The best part was the way in which all the items were obtained and graciously given to the two families that lost everything on that dark spring day in 2011.  We were able to provide a tree, food, gifts and more for these families.  But no tree is complete without ornaments and obviously those items aren’t high on the replacement list for families who lost everything. 

That’s where an awesome group of youngsters known as the Elite Scholars at Oakman Elementary School in Oakman, Alabama stepped up.  They put the word out about the families in need and asked the community to help gather ornaments for these families.  This was a subject near and dear to this community as they lost their own school and many homes in a tornado in early December of 2008.  They knew the pain of rebuilding from nothing. 

These students were able to collect well over 250 ornaments and received recognition from a local CBS affiliate for their work.  I am currently in the process of finding them the perfect thank you for their efforts but more than anything, I think you’ll agree that these gracious and empathetic students definitely feel empowered and have shown the character of people years their senior. 

Thanks so much to the Elite Scholars, their sponsor Tracy Ferguson and their Principal, Dr. Dennis Willingham for enabling these little people in an effort of giving back.  ~Jerri Ann Reason – Alabama Delegate 2011

Our district does a bunch of fun things. Some are: a food drive for the local Salvation Army & local Food Shelf, a collection for the local Humane Society of animal food, treats, blankets, cleaning supplies etc, some classrooms visit nursing care facilities (that are within walking distance) to sing carols and/or make crafts, and families are invited in to watch their little ones preform holiday carols. It is important for our children to know that the holidays are about giving back, not always receiving.  ~Angela Fiedler – Minnesota Delegate 2011

What we’ve done over the past 10 years is partner with our local colleges and universities and asked them to adopt families during the Christmas Holidays as a part of their community service requirements.  As a result, we are able to serve several families in need throughout the district.  Other valuable resources are your faith and community based organizations, and local sororities and fraternities.  ~Evelyn Jossell – Mississippi Delegate 2011

As a family we support our elementary school's angel tree program. The students who participate in this program are chosen by the school's Family Resource Youth Services Coordinator and remain anonymous. As a family, we go together to pick the items that are on the list, as well as finding one special item in our home that we want to share. It might be a book or a much loved (but aged out of) gently used toy or book. In addition, our school collects hats, gloves, scarves and coats and those that are not distributed to students in need are donated to the 15th District PTA Clothing Assistance Program for community wide distribution. We also participate in a city wide "Dare to Care" food drive. Whether we are able to give a little or a lot isn't the point, the point is that we need to all pitch in and give something, because something is better than nothing at all. 

We are a title I school with 82% free/reduced lunch and a large population of students participate in blessings in a backpack.   ~Myrdin Thompson – Kentucky Delegate 2010

In my office, we like to celebrate the holidays by picking a charity to donate to as a group. One of our favorite organizations is DonorsChoose.org. If you are not familiar with this website, it is a place where public school teachers can post projects that they would like to do with their classes, along with a list of supplies that they will need. Donors can go online, look through the posted projects, and pick which project they would like to donate to; it is easy to search by a variety of criteria, including location of school and subject of project. Then the donor picks how much they would like to donate. DonorsChoose.org processes the donation, purchases the supplies, and ensures that the materials get to the right person; they also provide photos of the project during and after as well as a cost report. If the project you donate to does not receive its full funding, DonorsChoose.org will e-mail you so that you can select a new project or allow them to select a new one for you. This is a great gift to give as well: for the music lover, give a donation to the band at their old high school; for the technophile, gift iPod shuffles so students can re-listen to their teacher’s instruction at home as a podcast. The holidays can be extremely busy, and DonorsChoose.org gives you the ease of donating online with the benefit of giving a gift that you know will truly impact a child's educational experience.  ~Melissa Bilash – Pennsylvania Delegate 2010

In Roseville, California, where my son attends High School, there are a couple of student clubs that help out families in need in the community.  They usually connect with either school principals or counselors to identify the families in need.    Then a list of what the family needs and wants is generated. Then these amazingly generous kids go to work.  I especially like the fact that this outreach is initiated and run by students.  The Roseville schools also partner with the Roseville Police Activities League and their "Shop with a Cop" program.  This program gives nominated students who have worked hard to stay away from gangs and crime and improve their grades the chance to go shopping with a police officer and get some of the things they need.

 At my daughter's Middle School, they hold a penny drive for the entire month of November.  Each class competes to bring in the most pennies.  Students and teachers can "sabotage" another class by bringing in quarters, dimes and nickels.  The value of these larger denominations are deducted from the total pennies.  Whichever class has the most penny-related earnings at the end of the month gets a pizza party at lunch.  The proceeds are gathered by the leadership class to assist needy families at a local feeder elementary school.  It is great fun for the students and teachers and really goes a long way toward helping families in need.

 Outside of school, my sister in Southern California and I have been working with the Walter Hoving Home in Pasadena, California.  This miraculous place is a recovery home for women recovering from drug and alcohol abuse and trying to escape lifestyles of prostitution and other crime.  The home receives no government funding as it is a faith-based program.  These women get clean of the drugs and work daily on studies to improve their lives.  They work collaboratively to support the program of which they are a part.  So many are mothers who were enslaved by drug addiction.  Some do get to have their kids come and stay in the special children's room one weekend a quarter.  It is such a peaceful and supportive place and these are truly courageous women.  I was touched by each and every one of them and their stories of how they've overcome their addictions.  You can't help but want to hug each and every one of them!  My sister and I are working to provide them a holiday celebration on December 10th and then will follow-up with an "Angel Tree" to help them provide gifts for their children over the holidays.  We've received some support from women in both Northern and Southern California, but we still need much more to fulfill the wishes of these Moms as they try to get through another holiday without their children by their sides.  ~Laura Taylor - California Delegate 2010

When I read this blog, tears just began to fall, tears that haven’t been there in 8 long months. There are great people in the world I know it; I used to be one of them. I was always the Mom helping at the Angel tree, food bank and Christmas programs. We used to be the family to adopt another family at Christmas, the family that took in homeless families for dinners. Now I feel like I haven’t anywhere to turn.

I am a University student and struggling every day. 8 months ago my ex decided our marriage was over and I had to move out - his girlfriend was moving in. I had nowhere to go and no money to support myself or my three kids. So, I moved in with my parents, 65 miles away, and applied to live on campus. I knew quitting school was not an option, I could do this! So we made it through the summer, it was difficult at times with the kids being in a new town and their friends being back in our old town, but we made it through. In the fall we moved back and into our new apartment. Cramped and cozy. Once my student loan money was gone for books and rent, the trouble began. By November I couldn’t buy the basic necessities that needed to be bought. I had to borrow from Peter to pay Paul. All three of my kids’ birthdays are in November and that was hard but not as hard as my oldest son telling me he was going to live with his dad. “You just can’t get me the wants and needs I need Mom, sorry.” Those are the words he said to me. Yep, he was right. I couldn’t, because my student loan money was gone from starting over and I haven’t received any Child Support to this day. I think the system is working for my ex – because it is taking forever, and he is fighting everything. So I looked for a job, which are far and few. Then another blow, “if you start receiving earned income, you will lose your food stamps.” Yes, this is what my case worker said to me, so was a part-time job worth losing my food stamps for? No, it wouldn’t even the scales in the long run. So as the days get colder and the snow gets deeper and my kids are wearing two sweatshirts and a shirt because they don’t have winter coats, we drudge on. Trust me I have gone to the Salvation Army, which is the only thrift store in our town, and it is a bit high priced. I have gone to the Stuff-a-Bus program and it was awesome, however there was nothing for teenage kids. I have sold everything we’ve owned to support us.

So with the holidays around the corner I would have to almost say Ba-humbug! There are programs out there and trust me I have tried to seek them out but it’s hard to find programs for mothers with teen children, so they can’t help. It’s so much easier to help the mothers with infants and toddlers, I guess. Just remember that out there somewhere, in your town, there is a mother, like me, who has teens and can’t afford to buy winter jackets and snow boots, let-alone Christmas gifts, that needs help too.  ~Anonymous Delegate

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