By Jane Duckwall
For several years, Dana Allen and about 100 co-workers at Duke University Health System have pooled their resources to buy Christmas gifts for dozens of families with young children. They give to Share Your Christmas, a program which is even older: Durham County’s Department of Social Services began pairing sponsors such as Allen with families in need in 1975, making it one of the longest-running of dozens of such programs across North Carolina.
“Everybody always says Christmas is for kids, and I really believe that,” says Allen, a customer-service team leader. “I couldn’t imagine being a child and not getting something.”
The Triangle Nonprofit & Volunteer Leadership Center coordinates the county program. The Herald-Sun newspaper supports it by printing brief profiles of families needing sponsors, and about 200 volunteers donate more than 4,000 hours every year to make the program a success.
DSS Director Michael Becketts describes Durham as “a place where there’s extreme opportunity and wealth, but there’s a significant level of poverty.” He adds, “We’re at about 27-28% of children living in poverty. We have 43,000 in Durham County who are receiving food and nutrition services and 52,000 getting Medicaid. And so when we look at those numbers, they aren’t going down. They are either holding steady or slowly increasing.”
Last year, about 400 individuals, families, nonprofits and businesses sponsored 1,200 families, says Adrienne Clark, the center’s director of special programs. Another 211 made donations without becoming sponsors. Kim Shaw, executive director for the center, says the value of gifts isn’t tallied, but the center asks sponsors to spend at least $50 per recipient. Multiplying that by last year’s 3,087 recipients equals $154,350, she says. “However, we estimate that the real number is probably at least double that amount. … Last year, some donors gave items such as microwaves, stoves, bikes, etc., that were all well over this $50 minimum.”
All program recipients are DSS clients, Clark says. “The social workers refer them to us, and we match them with sponsors. … They’re all vetted and qualified through DSS first. It’s very structured.” School social worker Katrina Lewis-Teachey has delivered bikes and other gifts to homes and seen the excited reactions. A pregnant, single mother who had recently been laid off from her job needed help to provide holiday gifts for her young son and prepare for a baby. “She kept saying, ‘I’m laid off! What am I going to do? I’ve got a baby coming, and my son is needing things,’” Teachey recalls.
The mother was paired with a sponsor who “just went all out,” Teachey says, and the mother called afterward to share her gratitude. “Everything that the baby needed, she got,” Teachey says. “Even the crib. … Everything that her son needed, he got that and then some.” As the mother told Teachey about the sponsor’s gifts, “she was just crying on the phone, and I was crying with her.”
Matching sponsors with families is something the program takes seriously, Clark says. She recalls a father with two sons who who needed help last year after they’d lost everything in a fire. She shared the father’s profile and wish list with a potential sponsor who was glad to help — and was a good match because she owned a furniture store.
At Duke, the spirit of giving is so strong during the holiday season that Dana Allen says it draws out even those people who might be considered Scrooges during other charitable events. Many spend well over $100 for each family member. “We really try to make a point with the kids,” she says. “They get 10 to 12 gifts each because the people here keep buying for them.”
“We joke here that there are plenty of Scrooges everywhere. I’ve seen some of those Scrooges be some of the best participants in this activity, in this group. That’s something to be commended,” she says. It can “turn my Scrooges’ faces upside down — or right-side up.”
Photos provided by Triangle Nonprofit & Volunteer Leadership Center