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Volunteers wanted for Christmas gift project

The Family Resource Center needs some help to make this holiday season a good one for 1,300 needy families.

By MARY ANN KOSLASKY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002

HERNANDO -- Ginger West, director of the Family Resource Center, believes in elves. She knows they exist because she works with them regularly, especially during the holiday season.

But this year, they appear to have become an endangered species. West just isn't seeing as many as usual. In a way, she understands why.

"They're getting older. Some have died, or had strokes, or are full-time caregivers," West said recently.

That doesn't make it any easier for West, who depends on volunteer support to handle the endless tasks required to make Christmas happen for 1,300 or so needy children and families in Citrus County. West is in desperate need of more volunteers, especially those who can commit to a block of time on a regular basis between now and Dec. 22.

"I need people who can come in from, say 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays or 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Mondays," said West. "I'm not saying that folks who drop in for just an hour or so aren't welcome, just that I need people I can train to certain jobs and know they'll be there to do them."

West hopes that retirees, church groups or other individuals or groups will come to her rescue. With so many steps in the process of putting children and gifts together, she is certain that there is a job for everyone.

How it happens

Taking a Times reporter on a tour of the new facility in the Historic Hernando School, West explained the process. It would be a model of efficiency for the Pentagon.

Step one begins when someone -- a teacher or counselor or someone in the community already doing social service work with children and families -- sees a child or family in need and approaches the family to see if they would accept help.

"It is supposed to be secret," said West. "But they probably know."

In the next step, information about the family members' needs and wants comes to the center and is fed into a computer, where children and families are assigned a number. A mail merge program creates the letters given or sent to people who choose to be sponsors and buy gifts for an individual or a family.

The third step comes when the gifts arrive at the center. They are double bagged in large garbage bags with either a large pink (for girls) or blue (for boys) file card identifying the recipient by number. The bags go into a storage room.

Next, the so-called "checking elves" take each bag and check the items against the list for each recipient. If a boy's package accidentally gets a dress, it is swapped out for pants and a shirt, West explained.

"People often ask if the gifts go directly to the sponsored child. Yes! Everything goes to the child unless there is a mistake in the bag, such as a size 3 shirt when the child wears a size 5," she said. "Then we swap out for the proper size. We do the same with toys to make sure each child gets age-appropriate toys. Other than safety issues and size, the child receives what is brought in for him or her."

Moving along, the bag goes to the "ready for computer" box. An elf takes the bag and compares the number of toys and clothing items in each bag to what was originally requested.

"If Tommy gets six toys, but his brother only gets three, we add more to his brother's bag so they get the same and nobody is unhappy Christmas morning," West said.

Next comes the "ready to wrap" box. Volunteers take a bag from this box to a wrapping table, and every elf at that table wraps gifts from that bag. Another check takes place at the wrapping table to make sure everything on the list is in the original bag.

"It's a fun way to get to know people," West said.

Once wrapped, the packages go back into the bag, and the bag is deposited into a large blue box, still with no name, just the original pink or blue card with the identifying number.

Then the package finds its way back to the computer elf, who places a "real tag" on it with the child's name, the proper holding box, and the person who will pick it up to deliver it.

Finally, West explains, "The delivery elf makes a small slit in the outer bag, removes the index card, signs it and turns it back in so we can tell what's been picked up."

The 'why'

"We really have three goals here," West explained.

"First, we provide things for children who might otherwise not have anything. But we meet real, honest needs, too. If a child needs shoes, or sheets for his bed, or a medic alert bracelet, they get it.

"Second, so many people in our community no longer have ties to family or children. We make many people feel needed . . . that's important. There's something about letting people connect with a child that is important. We don't expect people to do everything -- we expect them to do what their heart wants them to do.

"Third, we give people who have received help in the past an opportunity to help someone else. They come in and say, 'My daughter wouldn't have had anything for Christmas last year. I want to do something this year.' Sometimes they bring in toys. Sometimes they volunteer their time. It gives them a chance to give back."

Now what?

So, there it is. It takes a lot of elves to run this show, and head elf West is hoping many more will show up, either on a one-time visit or a regular basis. The nice thing about this job is that you can pretty much pick your own hours.

After Thanksgiving, things will begin to pick up. Greeters, people to answer the phones, gift wrappers and even folks who can run a sweeper or carry packages will be needed. As the holiday draws closer, hours will be longer at the center, and evening help will be needed.

To earn your wings, make the bell ring at the Family Resource Center at 344-1001, and become an elf.

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