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Operation: Holiday Help For Families!

Operation: Holiday Help for Families!

A Community Commitment to Christmas

A string of hardships three years ago left Shante and her family homeless for a year. She and her sons stayed with friends and family as much as possible to avoid being out on the streets.

A young mom, Shante didn’t know how she had gotten to this point, but she did realize she needed help. “I wanted to make a change in my life,” she says. “I put aside my pride and walked into The Salvation Army and prayed to God that they would have space for me and my family.”

The Salvation Army welcomed Shante with open arms, she says. “We moved into their shelter, and they reassured me everything would be okay.”

Working and going to school, Shante was able to get into the organization’s Pathway of Hope program and find housing. The program provides mentors and individualized services to families with children who want to break the cycle of poverty and crisis. 

This will be the third year she and her sons, now two and eleven, have been beneficiaries of The Salvation Army’s Christmas Assistance Program. 

“It was definitely a significant level of help,” Shante says of the program. “Even though I gained employment and was going to school, it still was a struggle for me. I didn’t know what I could do for my sons at Christmas. I really did need that assistance.”

Although Shante has made some progress, she had not been able to provide Christmas for her sons. Angel Tree was a “dream come true for my older son,” she says. “Having that assistance has helped me and my family really enjoy the holiday.”

One of the items Shante received through the program was a crib for her younger son, something “we really needed and appreciated,” she says. 

As participants in Pathway of Hope, she and her family also received a sponsorship through Angel Tree that provided additional items the family needed. “We currently have eighteen families in the [Pathway] program and they all get extra sponsorship for Angel Tree,” says Major Laura Dohlman, who shares the position of area commander of The Salvation Army Central Virginia with her husband, Major Donald Dohlman.

How Angel Tree Took Root

The Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program is just one component of the organization’s Christmas Assistance Program, developed to provide assistance and bring joy to families in need during the holidays. Other initiatives include FOX Holiday Socks, Richmond’s Christmas Mother, Puritan Cleaners Coats for Kids, and the Red Kettle Campaign. 

Angel Tree’s roots can be traced back to 1979 in Lynchburg when Lt. Colonels Charles and Shirley White of The Salvation Army helped
provide clothing and toys for area children. Shirley had visited a family right before Christmas and they had no Christmas tree or gifts for their family. “She was compelled to do something,” says Laura.   

The program got its name when the Whites wrote the gift needs of children on greeting cards with angels on them, then placed the cards on a Christmas tree at a local mall. 

“At the time, there was no type of Angel Tree program going on,” Laura says. 

This year marks the fortieth year of the program in Richmond. “Christmas is my favorite season, and it’s because I get to do this,” says Laura. “It’s a blessing for me to be part of this and touch so many people.”

This year, The Salvation Army has registered more than 2,600 families for assistance across Central Virginia, representing about 4,000 children and 6,400 individuals from eleven counties, four cities, and one town. 

After the families are registered for the Christmas Assistance Program, their wishes are written on special tags. Those tags are arranged like ornaments on Angel Trees at sites around town. The system makes it easy for people to take a tag, adopt an Angel (someone in need), and shop for gifts. 

Like last year, this year’s trees will feature two different tags. The tags with angels represent gifts for a child, and the tags with Christmas trees represent gifts for seniors who have applied for Christmas assistance.

Salvation Army Elves at Work

Vangie Hendrickson of Mechanicsville has been volunteering with The Salvation Army for many years, but she just started registering families for the Christmas Assistance Program and the Angel Tree last year. 

“We find out each family’s needs as they relate to the Angel Tree program,” she says, noting that people schedule appointments to talk with volunteers. “We get the sizes of the children and a wish list of one fun item so people shopping for the program can have guidelines.”

Hendrickson gets emotional when she meets one-on-one with families.  “It’s great to meet with them, but it is humbling,” she says. “We see their income statement and see they are making less than $10,000 a year. It’s easy to hear their wish list when you see that on paper. Thank God they can come to a place like this.” People interested in applying for assistance for next year should visit the Salvation Army website. This interview process starts in October.

Meeting the families and hearing their stories has shifted her perspective, Vangie adds. “These people have to show me their personal business and have to tell us what they can’t provide for their children. Our conversations are humbling and authentic. We get to offer hope to people who wonder where Christmas is coming from.”

After registration is completed, the organization’s computer system generates names and ages of children, “and then we add specific needs,” says Laura. “We get the Angels [gift requests] out to corporations first, and then we put them out at the mall. This year we will have over 5,000 Angels.”

Gifts purchased for children and seniors are due back to larger mall collection locations, no matter where you picked up your Angel Tree tag. Salvation Army staff will pick up the gifts from all of the donation drop-site locations by December 6. “When we get them back, our elves and volunteers get to work in the Christmas Center,” says Laura, noting the center this year is housed in the vacant Dick’s Sporting Goods store at Stony Point. “We need at least 100,000 square feet, but this year we only have 80,000 square feet. The two floors make it a little challenging.”

But, she adds, “it’s a blessing to see the warehouse go from empty to busting out of its seams. My dream is to one day own our own warehouse.”

After the donated gifts and toys have been collected, they are placed into a larger bag and color coded. Distribution to families takes place the week of December 16. During distribution, volunteers work three shifts a day. “We probably have 200 volunteers per shift,” Laura says. “On Saturdays, families can come in to volunteer. That helps teach our next generation how to give back to those in need.”

Everyone in the household picking up a gift bag leaves with a winter coat from Puritan Cleaners Coats for Kids, and each child registered for assistance also receives a stocking of holiday goodies from FOX Holiday Socks (while supplies last). 

Many Forms of Assistance

This is the nineteenth year FOX Richmond has led the charge on the Holiday Socks campaign and the seventeenth year Virginia Family Dentistry has been the title sponsor. Together, they distribute empty stockings to community members and collect thousands of filled
stockings at Virginia Family Dentistry’s fifteen locations.

Puritan Cleaners has collected more than 400,000 coats since 1988. The company’s team cleans and repairs each coat before it goes to the Christmas Center to be paired with a new owner. “I am overwhelmed by how we can come together and do so much good for the community,” Laura says. “You think about how many families you are touching and it’s a blessing.”

Families receiving assistance have different reasons for their need. “Sometimes people are in these situations by their own doing, but sometimes a person’s health, for example, can cause their whole family hardship,” Laura says. “Some people assume these people are not working, but there are people in the program who are really trying.”

Take Bill and his wife. They have been helping care for their two granddaughters, ages eight and five, ever since their father died by suicide last year. “That threw everything in a tailspin,” Bill says. “It was tough on them [the girls]. They became isolated.”

Last year, the girls received gifts from the Christmas Assistance Program. “They got bikes, and that is all they wanted. It meant so much to them,” says Bill, adding that the girls’ mother is in the hospital this year. “My wife and I had some concern about what we could do at Christmas, and that took the worry from us. It changed everything, and we needed that.”

One father in his forties came to the center after his wife had left him and their kids, and he was down to one paycheck. “He had to adjust and take care of his children on his own income,” Laura says. “It really breaks your heart in a way, knowing we all can be one paycheck away from what they are experiencing.” 

On gift pickup days at the center, twenty to thirty families come in every fifteen minutes. The day starts at eight in the morning and ends by five. Seniors pick up their gifts on the last day. “We also coordinate with nursing homes, and they can come and pick up the gifts,” Laura says. 

Often companies and organizations will make random donations of toys. Those toys are helpful when a community member forgets to bring back a gift after picking up an Angel Tree tag. “We give those toys to the forgotten angels,” Laura says.

That Classic Red Kettle Campaign

The Red Kettle campaign is a vital part of The Salvation Army’s ministry and fundraising efforts to support families facing hardship, not just during the holiday season, but also throughout the year. It is the organization’s biggest fundraiser of the year. The goal this year is to raise $350,000 nationally.

During the campaign, which started November 8, bell ringers stand next to their classic red kettles at more than seventy sites in the Greater Richmond and Tri-Cities area. You’ll see red kettles at area Kroger and Walmart locations, Sam’s Club, Macy’s, as well as Hobby Lobby, JCPenney, Cabela’s, and Bass Pro Shop.

“Our bell ringers and volunteers collect donations which allow The Salvation Army to meet human needs,” says Donald Dohlman, part of the husband and wife command team at the Salvation Army.

These monetary donations allow the organization to offer assistance with food, clothing, and utility bills, as well as educational and homelessness prevention programs and other programs at the Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club in the East End. 

Many of the volunteer bell ringers have been working the red kettle campaign for a number of years and through several generations. “We have several hundred bell ringers. There are some who ring for a couple of hours and some for one day a week. Some have been doing this for 15-plus years. Now they bring their children and grandchildren out,” says Donald.

Alton Martin volunteers his time for the program as part of the YMCA Adventure Guides program. “We work with children, and we wanted to demonstrate there is more to Christmas than gifts,” he says. “We want to help people with a need.”

Martin and his family ring bells in front of the Short Pump Kroger. “You are not asking anyone for money,” he says. “You ring the bell
to call attention.”

All volunteers are instructed to avoid verbally soliciting donations. “We don’t ask volunteers to hand out anything,” Donald says. “We ask them just to be there and ring the bell as a reminder. The kettles have been around so long that people know we help people who are suffering.”

It can be challenging work for the bell ringers, especially if there is inclement weather, he adds. “Standing in one spot for a couple of hours can be hard on your back and knees as well. But, I tell you when the weather is nice – not freezing cold or raining – the experience is a pleasant one for bell ringers.”

People walking by the kettles are usually kind and polite, he says. “Very seldom do we have a volunteer that has had a bad experience.” 

Offering More Than Assistance

The Christmas Assistance Program gives families like Shante’s hope. “It’s not all doom and gloom… any mother can provide a cheerful Christmas for her children,” Shante says. “We are able to come together as a family and share special moments and be grateful for what we do have.” 

Joan Tupponce
An award-winning writer based in Richmond, Joan Tupponce is a parent, grandparent, and self-admitted Disney freak. She writes about anything and everything and enjoys meeting inspiring people and telling their stories. Joan’s work has appeared in RFM since the magazine’s first issue in October 2009. Look for original and exclusive online articles about Richmond-area people, places, and ideas at Just Joan: RVA Storyteller.
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