Sharing the Spirit: A chance to give, receive

Posted: Friday, November 23, 2001

Not all children who wake up Christmas morning without a present under the tree are on Santa's naughty list during the year. Some simply come from families that can't afford the luxury of Christmas presents, much less turkey dinners or other embellishments during the holiday season.

It is for these families and individuals in need during the holiday season that the "Sharing the Spirit" program was created.

"Shaing the Spirit" is a volunteer program designed to provide food and toys for the holiday season to families experiencing financial hardships. It is a cooperative effort of The Salvation Army, Bridges Community Resource Network, the Kenai Peninsula United Way, the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank and the Women's Resource and Crisis Center.

The program began about four years ago and is modeled after the Giving from the Heart program in Anchorage, said Jane Stein, president of the board of directors of Bridges. Sharing the Spirit organizers and volunteers collect donations of non-perishable food, new toys, clothing and money to be distributed to individuals and families in the community in the form of food baskets and gifts for children.

Each agency involved in Sharing the Spirit contributes in a different way. Bridges, for example, is largely the spearhead for the program. As such, it sends out a newsletter about the program and contacts area groups and businesses about supporting it.

The agencies teamed up for this project to combine efforts, pool resources and make sure nobody went without during the holiday season.

"It's to make things equal for everybody," Stein said. "So you don't have some people getting 10 different dinners from 10 different groups and one family not getting anything. And if we can get that kind of thing going, I think it's great. I don't think anybody should go without."

The Women's Resource and Crisis Center is organizing the volunteer aspect of the program. It talks with people and groups that want to volunteer, determines how many workers are needed for each aspect of the program and sets up times for people to volunteer their services.

The Salvation Army collects toys and gifts through their Angel Tree program, puts food lists together and does a large percentage of the intake and processing of applications from people who wish to receive assistance from the program. The Salvation Army also will schedule times for each family or individual to come in and pick up their food and toys, provide the facilities to store the donations and host the "Toy and Joy" shop, which is a new addition to the program.

In past years, Angel Trees were placed in area stores with slips of paper that contained a child's age, up to age 18, and gender and what they wanted for Christmas. People wanting to donate would take a paper from the tree, buy a gift for that child and leave the gift and slip of paper in the store. Volunteers would collect those gifts and then have to match each donated item to the child who wanted it. It could be a chaotic and time-consuming process, said Salvation Army Envoy Jeannie Fanning.

This year the Angel Trees again are in area stores and still contain a child's age and gender. Gifts can be purchased and left at the stores with the slip of paper. But this year volunteers will gather the items and arrange them in a Toy and Joy shop at The Salvation Army warehouse at 11824 Kenai Spur Highway. The Salvation Army will send a letter to each family receiving donations listing a specific date and time to come to the warehouse. A volunteer will act as a personal shopper, taking parents through the Toy and Joy shop so they can pick out a gift for each of their children.

"We want it to be the best Christmas possible for kids, that's the bottom line," Fanning said. "We feel the parents would do a better job deciding what toys their kids want than we would. Part of this, in all honesty, is so the volunteers have a great Christmas, too. The way we were doing it before was very stressful. Having parents come in and choose a gift is a blessing for volunteers, too."

Also new this year is a Sharing the Spirit program at Wildwood Pretrial Facility. Volunteers from the program will meet with inmates and get their children's genders and ages, purchase gifts, take them back to the prison and let the inmates select a present to give to each of their children.

"I feel very excited about giving those people an opportunity to pick out and give things to their families that wouldn't ordinarily have that option," Stein said.

The food boxes that are given out contain the usual trimming for a holiday meal -- a turkey or chicken, vegetables and the fixings, as well as other food items to make sandwiches, soup and other meals. The boxes are put together to last a family for at least a week.

To receive assistance from the Sharing the Spirit program a family or individual must fill out and return an application at Bridges, the Women's Resource and Crisis Center, the Food Bank or The Salvation Army. The applications contain questions about family size, finances and the like and may seem a little extensive at first, Fanning said. But the questions are designed to give the organization an idea of how the family can be helped in the future, not just at Christmas. Identification, for example, Social Security cards, for everyone living at the residence also must be presented, as well as children's names, ages, genders and what they would like for Christmas.

Qualification for the program is based more on the family's immediate situation rather than overall finances.

"We don't have a hard and fast rule on income," Fanning said. "Everybody's situations are different. They may have done well two months ago and all of a sudden hit a hard time. We go pretty much by where you are now. If someone goes through all the effort of coming in and sitting down with us and telling us they have a problem, I doubt we'd turn them away."

Applications will be accepted through Dec. 14 at any Sharing the Spirit agency. Volunteers will set up the Toy and Joy shop and get the food baskets ready Dec. 15 through 17. Pick-up times will be scheduled for Dec. 18 through 21.

Volunteers are still needed, especially to serve as personal shoppers for families in the Toy and Joy shop Dec. 18 through 21. Six to 12 volunteers will be needed each hour to staff the shop. Last year the program had around 190 volunteers but more will be needed this year. Volunteers are also needed to sort food and toys, prepare food baskets, do inventories and help clean up.

"There are a lot of different groups that are actively involved in it that come in and help," said Emily Aley, volunteer coordinator at the Women's Resource and Crisis Center.

"It's a lot of fun. I like working with all the different people and seeing the community really come in and help other people. This community is very involved; it's nice to see."

Food, new toys, clothing and monetary donations also are needed to make the program a success. Uncooked food donations are requested. Gifts for older children up to age 18 or monetary donations that can be used to purchase gifts also are required, since people tend to like buying presents for the younger kids first, Fanning said.

"We prefer to give out new things rather than used," Fanning said. "Particularly this time of year we like the kids to get new things. It's just a wonderful way to help these kids out."

Anyone wishing to volunteer can call Emily Aley at 283-9479. Donations can be given to any participating agency or left at participating area stores as Angel Tree gifts.

"With all the crisis in New York, people were very generous," Fanning said. "I'm hoping that people aren't burnt out on the giving end of things and still want to support their local area. I know the Kenai Peninsula, I know we're going to pull through, I'm not too stressed.

"There are people out there that really want to help and this is a vehicle for them to help. And there are people out there that are in need so it's nice to be able to have everything in place to be able to help them. I think that it is both a blessing to the giver and receiver."

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