Gifts from Angels

United Way of Johnson County program gives children holiday help

By Rebecca Berfanger

For children, the holidays can be a stressful time. The stress can be compounded for children of low-income families or those who have recently experienced a trauma. Going back to school after the holidays can be upsetting when classmates talk about what they did over the holiday break, including any new clothes or toys they received, when not all children were able to receive even a small gift.

Enter United Way of Johnson County’s Christmas Angels program. Since 1999, the program has been connecting sponsors — individuals, families, businesses, organizations and religious groups — with children who are having a tough time at the holidays.

The Christmas Angels program helps kids going back to school to feel as if they fit in when classmates are talking about what they got for Christmas, says Nancy Lohr Plake, executive director of United Way of Johnson County and the spokeswoman for the Christmas Angels program.

“What breaks my heart is knowing there are middle school kids and high school kids who are going back to school, not being able to say what they got for Christmas,” she says.

And help the program does. Last year, UWJC Christmas Angels helped 646 Johnson County families with a total of 1,614 children. The gift giving came from sponsors, who bought gifts for specific children, and the Angel Tree Store for children who were not paired with sponsors. “The numbers have been pretty steady, so we anticipate that there will be between 1,500 and 1,700 children this year,” says Plake.

Letters to Santa

United Way of Johnson County receives names and information about children who may be eligible for the program from schools around the county that collect applications from parents, as well as parents or guardians who come to their offices at various scheduled times to submit names and household information. For instance, parents and guardians provide information about their income, whether they receive any public assistance and how many people live in the household. Volunteers at United Way check the applications to make sure they are filled out correctly.

If a school submits an application on a family’s behalf, Plake says, those children are almost always approved because she trusts the schools know their kids and families better than they would. “If an older brother is in school, then the school will put the younger sister on the application,” she says. “If one kiddo is getting help in a family, all of the kiddos are getting help.”

The family’s circumstances are also taken into consideration.

“Maybe they don’t meet the income requirements, but a family member just lost a job, the family recently left a domestic violence situation, or maybe they just lost their child support,” Plake says. “Maybe there is a health issue, or suddenly the family now has a relative’s family member in their care. For instance, we sometimes hear, ‘My sister is in jail, and I’m taking care of her kids,’ or ‘My brother or son is in jail, so I’m helping his family.’”

Once approved, the children’s names are then entered into a database that is accessible only to the United Way. However, other local charitable organizations can call United Way to ask if children are already receiving assistance for the holidays to avoid duplication.

The Christmas Angels work with the Good Cheer Fund, which provides Christmas dinners to families in Johnson County. This way, families that are sponsored through Christmas Angels will be connected with that program as well. Some sponsors also choose to donate a holiday meal or grocery store gift card.

Elves off the shelves

The deadline for applications for families to receive help from Christmas Angels closed in mid-November so that sponsors could be connected in time for Black Friday sales, says volunteer Brenda Aldorisio, who has volunteered for the program since she retired in 2006 and is known as “the head elf.”

However, there are other ways to help. United Way still may have opportunities to sponsor children, and they will be accepting donations to the Angel Tree Store in mid-December.

United Way asks that sponsors spend at least $100 per child and encourages sponsors to purchase at least one outfit and one toy for each child. Sponsors can also let United Way know how many children they wish to sponsor within their budget.

United Way also recommends that sponsors consider giving gifts that are equitable for each child. For instance, instead of buying six or seven toys for the youngest family member and only two or three items for an older kid, try to find a middle ground so that they all receive about the same number of gifts.

The families also include information about what the children want or need, including sizes, ages and interests. Children are eligible for the program through age 17.

Sponsors may also request what ages they’d like to sponsor. For instance, says Aldorisio, some families will ask to sponsor children about the same age as their own children. That way they can choose gifts based on what the sponsor’s children might like.

If United Way received applications for sponsors prior to Nov. 20, they would have been paired with a family by Nov. 21. However, sponsors who applied after Nov. 21 would be paired as soon as possible. If a sponsor wishes to remain anonymous, gifts must be delivered to United Way by Dec. 14. Because the storage area for gifts is small, said Aldorisio, United Way will call families as soon as they receive the items.

For families that aren’t paired with a sponsor, or sponsors who didn’t apply in time to get a family, another option is the invitation-only Angel Tree Store.

Aldorisio said they don’t publicly share the exact dates and times for the store, but did say that it is available in mid-December. Donors can contact United Way for more information on how and when to donate and if there are any particular age groups that could use more items. Gifts must be dropped off by Dec. 15.

Plake added that she had a conversation earlier this year with an organization that asked for a challenge, so she suggested donations for teenagers who are often overlooked around the holidays. For instance, she said, seemingly simple items like shaving kits for boys are among the first item to be selected from the Angel Tree Store. Teenage girls might want and need undergarments like a new bra, or even new socks, that they otherwise couldn’t afford on their own.

“You can give a 2-year-old a box and they are happy,” Plake says. “I love for people to step up and say, ‘I want to take teens. I’ll sponsor a teenager or buy teenage-appropriate gifts.’”

For those interested in volunteering for the program, either this year or in the future, there are other opportunities for just two hours or more, whether it is sorting gifts for the Angel Tree Store, or data entry in the weeks leading up to the program.

For volunteers, says Aldorisio, it’s a good opportunity to help others in the community. “I just checked a box on a form in 2006, and I’ve gone back every year since,” she says. “I get something out of it myself and feel good doing it.”

For more information, contact United Way of Johnson County at (317) 736-7840 or uwjc@uwjc.org, or visit the website for this year’s Christmas Angels program, uwjc.org/christmas-angels-2.