story by mary ellen thompson photography by sussan deloach
Last year, 3200 children in 1488 families in Beaufort County would not have had Christmas if it were not for the gifts from Operation Holiday Heroes and its participating partner agencies.
Operation Holiday Heroes is a county wide collaborative program that makes sure all children and families in need in Beaufort and Jasper County have food and gifts under the tree on Christmas. United Way of the Lowcountry partners with the Toys for Tots Foundation, The Beaufort Gazette/ Island Packet, Deep Well Project, Bluffton Self Help, The Salvation Army of the Lowcountry and Love House Ministries to accomplish this mission.
Chrystie Turner, Director of Allocations and Community Engagement for United Way of the Lowcountry, who is the coordinator for this massive effort, believes that children should enjoy a time of innocence in their lives; “Children should be able to believe in Santa regardless of their family’s income level. Throughout the year these children face day to day hardships and we want them to have the opportunity to experience the magic of the season.”
3200 is an amazing number of children, who would not have had anything for Christmas otherwise. And that number only represents the number of people who knew ahead of time they wouldn’t be able to provide Christmas for their family. Chrystie fears that the numbers this year may be much higher due to the disaster of Hurricane Matthew. “So many people spent their savings on evacuating, paying for repairs, meeting insurance deductibles. Those may be the people who bought gifts and donated money last year, that actually have to come to us for assistance this year. It is largely the middle class who will go shopping for their own Christmas gifts and pick up that extra Barbie doll, or remote controlled car, and donate it to the program. I know many of them who just won’t be able to do that this year.”
In order to receive gifts, or food, the family in need has to fill out an application asking for assistance. Each of the organizations has their own application and times for applying. Basic requirements to receive gifts are: SC picture ID or driver’s license, proof of residence (lease or electric bill) and birth certificate for all children. Proof of all current income and expenses are also required.
Chrystie says the first step is getting the family to apply. “Many just won’t reach out for the help. They are working and they believe that the next paycheck is going to be the one that buys the presents, but when they get right down to it, that next paycheck probably has to pay the rent, or the electric bill, or school clothes, or an unexpected repair bill. No parent wants to believe they aren’t going to be able to provide for their children.”
Through this program, each child receives two gifts and a stocking stuffer. Additionally, each organization is trying to reinforce the importance of reading by providing a book for each child as well. The parents are actually able to shop for their children’s presents at a “Toy Shop,” housed at the different agencies. This empowers the parents and allows them to play an active role in the children’s Christmas. In some cases, parents are also given wrapping paper, bows and ribbons so they can wrap the gifts themselves. This may not seem like much, but being able to choose the gifts and wrap the presents brings a lot of joy to these parents. Every child in need is eligible for this program regardless of their religion or traditions.
As families are applying for Christmas assistance, Toys for Tots boxes are up in businesses, office buildings and stores throughout our community to collect new, unwrapped toys. The Toys for Tots program is run by the Marine Corps Reservists who assist in the collection of the boxes and the distribution of the toys to partner agencies to stock their toy shops. Toys can also be taken directly to the Salvation Army, Love House Ministries, Bluffton Self Help, the Deep Well Project and any of the three United Way offices throughout Beaufort and Jasper Counties. For those who would like to make a monetary donation, cash and checks can be dropped off or mailed to United Way of the Lowcountry at P.O. Box 202 Beaufort, SC 29901. Check should be made payable to Operation Holiday Heroes. Those who give monetary donations will be listed in the Beaufort Gazette/Island Packet on Saturdays unless donors want to remain anonymous.
There are many ways you can be a part of this holiday tradition. If you are having a Christmas party, you can ask your guests to bring a gift or cash for Operation Holiday Heroes. Businesses can request a Toys for Tots toy box or put a jar on their counter for monetary donations. You can also make a donation on behalf of your clients or employees as a way to honor them. Of course anyone can put a new, unwrapped toy in one of the boxes. For a full list of drop off locations, visit www.toysfortots.org to find a location near you. Toys will be accepted in the boxes now until December 12th.
Operation Holiday Heroes serves children 12 and under, except in special circumstances. There is always a great need for gifts for children between the ages of 8 and 12. Favorite gifts include books, board games, remote controlled cars, lip gloss and makeup sets, cologne/ perfume, movies, as well as craft projects, science kits, jewelry making sets and sports equipment.
Each partner agency has their own toy shop dates and times. However, Chrystie at United Way of the Lowcountry will be available right up until the last minute for any emergency situations that occur.
All the toys and donations stay right here in our community and benefit local children. Christie wants to remind all of those who donate that “Operation Holiday Heroes has an effective screening process that allows us to make the most of your generous gifts, while also ensuring accountability.” She also wants to ensure all of those who are struggling to make ends meet should reach out for assistance. “While it can be difficult for families who have not been in need of assistance before to reach out for the help, the last thing we want to happen is for a child to wake up on Christmas morning and not have a present under the tree.”
Just think, if everyone who reads this story gives a toy or makes a donation of as little as $10, it will go a long way to bringing Christmas to children here in the Lowcountry. So, please, donate early and donate whatever you can.