The holidays can be a rush of food, family and togetherness, but for some it can be a real time of stress as they try to figure out how to have a happy holiday while having to choose between getting gifts for children or keeping the lights on and the rent paid.
Project Santa 2023, in conjunction with the Christmas Cops Toy Drive, and the Lowry High School (LHS) Virtual Angel Tree (organized by the LHS Junior Class), aims to help make sure that families in need can still have gifts for their children and teens even without the funds to do so.
For the past 11 years, Frontier Community Action Agency (FCAA) has been partnering with the Humboldt County School District (HCSD) and local law enforcement to put on this gift program and deliver presents to families in need.
Case Manager Lily Avalos, the FCAA started seeing a consistent increase of assistance requests in January after the holidays, meaning many families were having to choose between buying gifts and dealing with other holiday expenses and paying their bills—a position that no one wants to be in.
“In January we’d see a huge influx of people needing help with shutoff notices and rent and things like that, but it was because they had overextended themselves [during the holidays] to make sure their kids had a Christmas, so it was basically Christmas or the bills. That’s a really tough spot,” said Avalos. “As adults we can rationalize that we need to keep the lights on or whatever but also, I think it’s really hard as a parent to tell your kid 'that’s all I could gift you'.”
Each of the programs is designed to collect gifts uniquely so that as many families as possible can be reached and the resources can be spread as far as possible.
Each family that has applied for the program has provided both proof of eligibility such as SNAP (food stamps) or TANF (cash assistance), or other proof of income and proof of relationship to the child or children that the application is for such as a birth certificate, school documents, or vaccine records.
“The rules we have in place are not to exclude people, but it’s to make sure that all the work that the community puts in and our donors and our office and our partners put in meets the final goal of the children that need the most getting the gifts and you know, spreading it—the wealth, the resources— as best we can,” explained Avalos.
Last year’s Project Santa helped over 400 kids receive gifts for Christmas and the LHS Virtual Angel Tree has already kicked off with kids and teens ready to be sponsored via the Project Santa LHS Virtual Angel Tree Facebook page.
“For each child who qualifies for the program we post a need, a read and a want for them anonymously on our Facebook page so that community members can sponsor the children. Our community has been incredibly generous with this program. It is truly amazing to see how much support the community gives. I cannot begin to imagine how different of a Christmas it would be for these kids if this program didn’t exist,” explained LHS Junior Class Advisor Laura Mercado in an email.
Cherese Fifield, another LHS Junior Class Advisor, said in an email that “Project Santa is a wonderful program and benefits not only the children in our community but also many community members who donate and volunteer…[The community] truly come[s] together and give[s] these families some much needed stress relief and some extra love and compassion. The students at Lowry are always amazed at the sheer volume of “gifts” and the number of families that are touched by Project Santa.”
HCSD Superintendent Dr.Dave Jensen also said “The engagement of our students and staff to make Christmas a memorable experience for as many children as possible is a testament to their desires to make a lasting impact on our youth. I appreciate their compassion and desire to see a smile on the face of every child. We are fortunate to live in such an amazing community where public service is valued and actively sought after.”
There are many ways to contribute to the gift programs and anyone can make a monetary donation to the FCAA, donate toys to the Christmas Cops Toy Drive on Dec. 2 outside of Walmart, or volunteer their time to help organize and wrap the gifts during Santa’s Workshop Dec. 4 through 8 at the Winnemucca Fairgrounds. All donations are due Nov. 28 and should be dropped off at Les Schwab Tire Center so they can be sorted and distributed by the holiday.
Avalos explained that the Christmas Cops Toy Drive helps fill in the gaps that the FCAA finds when organizing the gifts, as many families are receiving gifts for multiple children and they want to make sure that each child receives age appropriate gifts, clothing in the correct sizes, and make sure that kids in the same family are receiving a balanced amount and quality of gift.
Once the FCAA combined efforts with Christmas Cops and the HCSD, the program grew by about a third, meaning more work but also that more families could be reached, according to Avalos.
Many times, as families apply for the programs, the FCAA is able to reach out personally to those that may not know about the resources that the FCAA offers or about programs they may assume they will not qualify for.
Avalos explained that there are usually around 120 families within the hundreds of kids and teens that benefit from the program and the FCAA has to reach out to about 80 or more of the families to clarify things on applications, gift requests, and other aspects.
This process takes a lot of thought and time and has many people working behind the scenes, like the FCAA’s Tania Alvarez who designs many of the systems that keeps the program organized. With such a small staff, the FCAA is always looking for volunteers that can help with different aspects of the program.
“It’s a really big undertaking for our office,” said Avalos, but added that the program truly helps reach families in need in the community and spread support.