It will be a much happier Christmas for more than 1,000 families in Dakota County, thanks to 360 Communities’ Armful of Love program.
It’s all wrapped up for this year, but thoughts are already turning to Christmas 2016. It takes an army of staff, sponsors and volunteers to make it happen: staff to interview eligible families, sponsors to buy toys, games, clothes and food gift cards for the families, and volunteers to organize and wrap the gifts at a central warehouse, then help the families pick up the gifts bought especially for them.
Businesses, church groups, service organizations and community groups as well as individuals become sponsors for one family or a dozen. They might donate $5 or $1,000, a toy or a gift card.
This year, there were 115 individual sponsors and 16 groups, totaling more than 300 people.
Phone lines opened Oct. 15 for eligible families to sign up. Within four days, 800 slots were filled, said Tony Compton, director of communications and marketing for 360 Communities, a nonprofit that serves mostly Dakota County. It took less than 10 business days to complete interviews to identify needs the families might have, he said.
Some families get into the program through 360 Communities services they already use, such as food shelves or family support services.
The gifts were organized and wrapped at a warehouse on Hwy. 13 donated by ShopJimmy.com, and, this year, families picked up their gifts Dec. 10 to 12 and Monday.
Each family also receives a gift card from Cub Foods so they can prepare a holiday meal. They’re supplied, too, with cards, envelopes and postage so they can write thank-you notes.
“You see an outpouring of generosity from the sponsors, then an outpouring of gratitude from the families,” Compton said.
“Sometimes you don’t see the benefits until a generation later. Sometimes you’ll see immediate rewards — a family that’s stabilized, a kid who’s picking up the pace at school, a person in our shelter, safe.”
Families often return when they no longer need help to volunteer or organize toy drives.