BY CLARA ILKKA - PONY EXPRESS
This piece is provided by Hoof Prints, a partnership between the Stillwater Gazette and The Pony Express, Stillwater Area High School’s student newspaper.
The line went out the door and into the full parking lot. Even though it was drizzling, they were willing to wait outside. At 11 a.m., the doors open, and the crowd entered the warm waiting room, where they were given fresh baked cookies, hot coffee and cocoa. Children played with toys in the back room, while their parents registered the family so that the kids could soon have toys of their own.
That was the scene at the first day of registration for Holiday Hope, an annual service run by Community Thread in Stillwater. For the last 40 years, the program has provided low-income families, seniors and disabled adults living within the Stillwater School District with Christmas presents. They also receive a holiday meal, and can even get a voucher for a tree. Community Thread reports that almost 10 percent of people living in Stillwater live below the poverty line. Last year, the program helped 1,187 individuals, including 291 families.
Sara Pennebecker is the volunteer program manager at Community Thread. Although this is her first year working there, she already can see the good the program does.
“It’s a good reminder how much need there is and how generous people can be,” Pennebecker said. “When I think of the program and the people that we serve, the word that comes to mind is grateful. Some people are embarrassed that they need to be there and share with us that they thought they’d never have to utilize a program like Holiday Hope. During the gift pick-up, people are often overwhelmed by the sheer size of gifts, and they’re so grateful for the generosity of the community members. They’re grateful that they don’t have to explain to their kids why Santa isn’t coming this year.”
The program works by assigning registered families to sponsors, who spend a minimum of $25 on each person. Registered families give a list of items they would like for Christmas, and sponsors purchases items from the list. Sponsors either deliver the gifts directly to families or drop them off at Community Thread, where families pick them up before Christmas.
“Sponsors participate because, in the spirit of the holidays, there’s an underlying theme of grace,” Pennebecker said. “The holidays, for a lot of people, are about giving. It’s a way to get involved and give. They like knowing they made a difference in someone’s life.”
Holiday Hope is one of Community Thread’s main initiatives during the year.
“We start really thinking about it in August and September, but come October, we start planning more,” Pennebecker said. “November and December are pretty much focused on Holiday Hope. It’s kind of a bell curve in terms of number of hours.”
Although it is a gift giving service, many of the items people ask for would not usually be considered gifts. Many people are apprehensive about asking for presents for themselves, so they ask for gifts for their kids and basics, like towels or grocery gift cards.
Kira Young is the program coordinator at Community Thread. She reads registration applications and sees firsthand what people are asking for.
“I have seen, from the applications I’ve looked at, a lot of coats, mittens and hats — winter necessities,” Young said.
Poverty is not something usually associated with Stillwater. Community Thread and Holiday Hope offer resources to those who might go unseen but need help.
“In some ways, people see what they want to see,” Pennebecker said. “People have a variety of assumptions of what poverty looks like. There are different kinds of poverty. We see a lot of parents who lose their jobs and don’t have income. People like to dichotomize issues — that it’s an ‘us and them,’ and that poverty is in the metro, not here in Stillwater.”
This year Community Thread has reached out at Stillwater Area High School to get more teenagers involved in volunteering at Holiday Hope events. The group meets every Tuesday after school to discuss what they saw, the emotions they felt and what can be done about it. Junior Megan Warbalow joined the group because she thinks “putting a smile on a little kid’s face” is rewarding.
“I think all teens should be involved in community service because it builds character,” Warbalow said. “It teaches you about being compassionate for people and being grateful for what you have. It also builds social skills which you will use and apply in your whole lifetime. When I was volunteering, I felt a lot of compassion. Seeing all the families that can’t afford Christmas gifts for their kids is heartbreaking, because I couldn’t imagine being a young kid and not getting presents from Santa.”
Gift pick-up is Dec. 19. The real magic happens, however, Dec. 24 and 25, when Santa comes to town and the presents are opened. Stillwater will be filled with many smiling children thanks to the generosity of their fellow community members.