Holiday angels help families in need

  • Article by: KARA NESVIG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2009 - 5:27 PM

More needy families than ever are seeking help from the many adopt-a-family programs operating during the holidays. And Minnesota's more fortunate residents are stepping up to the plate.


Renae Gold and her daughter, Sophie, 5, collaborated on choosing gifts for a girl in a family they were shopping for Wednesday night at Jewish Family and Children’s Services in Minnetonka.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Money has been tight for Claudia Bialke, who works for Minneapolis Public Schools. After gaining custody of her two granddaughters, ages 5 and 8, financial responsibilities loomed even larger. "Trying to make a house payment and raise two grandchildren I didn't plan raising, Christmas is not on my list," she said.

So Bialke participates in the Volunteers of America of Minnesota's Grandparents as Parents, which has an Adopt-a-Family program.

"It's a beautiful program," she said. "They want a list of what you need, sizes, even what the grandmother needs, not just the grandchildren."

The recession and its landslide of lost jobs and slashed paychecks have made the holidays a lot harder for more metro-area families this year, and various organizations statewide have seen increased interest in adopt-a-family programs, both from sponsors and recipients.

Kristin Cook, events coordinator for Volunteers of America of Minnesota (VOAMN), said that even though times are tough, people are still coming out in droves to help those who might have trouble buying that Barbie doll or Tonka truck for their little ones.

"Last year at this time, we had 156 sponsor groups registered for the program; this year, we already have 315 groups signed up -- so a huge increase in sponsor support over last year," Cook said. Most of VOAMN's sponsors are employee groups, and they sponsor senior citizens as well as families in need of holiday aid.

The increase in sponsors parallels rising need in the state. In 2004, 766 people were "adopted" by VOAMN volunteers, Cook said. In 2005, 1,300 people were adopted; last year, the number was around 2,000.

But it's a lot of work. "If we had the staff capacity to help everyone that wanted or needed help, the numbers would be astounding," she said.

Cost can seem daunting

RESOURCE Inc., a metro-area nonprofit organization providing employment, mental health, substance-abuse counseling and job training, didn't have a full-fledged adopt-a-family program last year. But this year, coordinator Samantha Sleeman said, the group has more than 60 families waiting to be matched with donors for the holidays.

In a year when everyone's purse strings are a little tighter, it might seem daunting to do not only your own personal holiday shopping but that of another family's, as well. Although the cost of adopting a family varies, Sleeman estimates the cost to be around $50 to $100 per family member. RESOURCE serves families as small as two and as large as seven.

For the VOAMN program, the average cost for a family of five to be "adopted" is around $600. For most programs, $50 per person is fairly standard.

Programs often provide helpful shopping lists for different age groups. VOAMN's program requires families in need to request three gifts under $25 and one gift under $50 per member.

"We also ask sponsors to include a grocery store gift card, in any amount, for each family and senior, for the purchase of a holiday meal," Cook said.

Religious organizations often sponsor families in need as part of their charitable community work. The Jewish Family and Children's Services, a division of the United Way, includes one in their Hag Sameach program. Translated, it means "happy holidays," and program coordinator Joanne Savitt said the program is unique because it's the only one in the metro to serve people for Hanukkah.

But the Hag Sameach program isn't exclusive. "It's for all people of all backgrounds," she said. "We don't want anyone to be left out of the rich tradition of the holiday."

Now in its 17th year, the Hag Sameach program is serving about 400 families, or 1,000 individuals, this season. Savitt also reports seeing higher numbers this year.

People need to be referred through an agency, a case manager at Jewish Family and Children's Services, a rabbi or someone in the community who knows their situation.

"[The Hebrew word] Tzedakah means charity, and we are doing tzedakah because it teaches us to support all people of all backgrounds to reach their full potential," Savitt said.

Sharing the load

Things were tense this year for the Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners of Wayzata, which has been providing Christmas gifts for 29 years. The night before their Nov. 12 deadline, only 50 percent of families in need had been placed with sponsors. An e-mail blast to 2,000 members of their organization provided a needed boost, however, and now program coordinator Susan Fetterer says all 492 families enrolled are sponsored and on track to receive Christmas gifts.

The administrative work that comes with adopt-a-family programs can be crushing, Fetterer said. In Interfaith's case, the program requires more than 18,000 hours of work and 2,200 volunteers, from sponsors to shoppers, gift-wrappers to deliverers.

Fetterer realizes that sponsoring a family during these difficult financial times isn't the easiest thing to do.

"The reality this year is that the struggle is definitely there. The families who have made the commitment to do this are not the wealthiest people in the community," she said. Often it's Scout troops or co-worker groups who chip in to sponsor a family. "That's how they make it happen. They share the workload and the financial load."

Fetterer also notices a change in gift-giving practices among extended familes.

"Increasingly, every year people are telling me their extended families are no longer exchanging gifts. They're pooling those resources so they can make Christmas happen for other families."

And so it happens for people such as Claudia Bialke. This year, her granddaughters have books, knee-high socks and pajamas on their wish lists. The 5-year-old would love a big baby doll. Bialke herself still radiates gratitude over the gift she received last year through VOAMN's Grandparents as Parents program.

"By the time I get home from work, I don't have time to make dinner, so I asked for a cookbook and a crockpot," she said. "It was the most wonderful gift."

Kara Nesvig is a Minneapolis freelance writer.

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    RESOURCE, Inc., 1900 Chicago Av. S., Mpls., MN 55404. Call 612-752-8000 or go to

    Jewish Family & Children's Services, 13100 Wayzata Blvd., No. 400, Minnetonka, MN 55305-1839. Call 952-546-0616 or go to

    Interfaith Outreach & Community Partners, 110 Grand Av., Wayzata, MN 55391-1872. Call 952-473-2436 or go to

    Volunteers of America-Minnesota,

    7625 Metro Blvd., Edina, MN 55439.

    Call 952-945-4000 or go to

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