In Dakota County, a holiday call to open arms

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 13, 2010 - 8:15 AM

The volunteer-driven Armful of Love program delivers gifts to thousands of Dakota County residents facing financial difficulties during the holiday season.

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This was the scene last year one month before Christmas. Hillary Mealman, then coordinator for Armful of Love, posed in the warehouse where gifts for the Dakota County charity were stored. The charity matches up families in need with sponsors who purchase Christmas presents for the families.

Photo: Peter Cox , Special to the Star Tribune

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A couple of years ago, Steve Haschig was taken aback by one man's request for an iPod for Christmas, especially in light of the rest of the family's modest wish list, which included food, socks, underwear and a blue-hooded sweatshirt.

The man, who had a wife and two young children, was dying of cancer, and he wanted the iPod so he could listen to soothing music from his bed, especially after receiving intensive chemotherapy treatments, Haschig later learned.

Haschig and his wife sponsored the family as a part of the Armful of Love Holiday Caring Program through 360 Communities in Burnsville, which delivers gifts to those who might otherwise go without.

360 Communities, formerly known as the Community Action Council, where Haschig is the senior director of development, is a nonprofit social services organization that works to prevent violence, ensure school success and promote long-term self-sufficiency, according to its website.

After hearing more about the man's story, Haschig and his wife were eager to get him an iPod. "It changed our attitude about our response," he said.

"It wasn't so much that we had something to give that he didn't have," said Haschig. "It was about the connection between one human being to another."

He encourages others to get involved with Armful of Love, which he said is shouldered by hundreds of volunteers, even more so this year. Right now, he said, they're trying to get the word out that they need people to answer phones, interview and sponsor families and handle gifts, especially anyone with bilingual skills.

Usually the organization hires a director to head up the massive coordinating effort, but this year a core group of volunteers is taking it on, he said. "The community is reaching out to the community," he said. Sometimes a former donor comes in to get help, or someone who benefited from the program returns to give back.

Apple Valley resident Sarah Steber, a single mother of two, who has turned to Armful of Love, is thankful for those who've been there for her family.

She's been hunting for a steady job since she graduated from college with a business degree in 2008. Steber has done part-time work here and there, but she still has a hard time keeping up with bills and providing for her children.

A couple of years ago, her son Isaiah, 8, "was looking forward to Santa coming and getting something under the tree," she said. But she didn't have the money to spare.

That was when a friend referred her to Armful of Love. Isaiah received a bike from their sponsor. "He thought it was the coolest thing in the world," she said, adding that he also got some new clothes, books and toys.

From the sponsor she also received a gift certificate for a haircut, body lotion and various kitchen items.

"It was very helpful," she said. "They go above and beyond. If it wasn't for the program, I wouldn't be able to have Christmas for my kids."

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.

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