By Carissa Woytach, United Way of Greater Cleveland Staff Writer
With the holiday spirit in full swing, several United Way of Greater Cleveland employees continued the organization’s annual tradition of collecting gifts for Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services (CCDCFS) toy drive.
“Hope for the Holidays,” the three-year-old rebranding of the County’s Giving Tree, invites participants to donate gifts for all age groups for distribution to attendees from the foster and kinship care.
The rebranding came from trying to help ease some burden off the children’s caseworkers, said Kristin Gardner, CCDCFS volunteer and outreach coordinator. Under the Giving Tree program, caseworkers had to juggle collecting and delivering gifts to individual families, while with Hope for the Holidays, the child’s caregivers are responsible for taking them to the county holiday party.
“Children end up in foster care if bad things have happened to their family or it’s not safe to remain in your home,” Gardner said, “To be removed from your home is sad and hard, especially around the holiday. We love to see the children leave the Hope for the Holidays event with a bag full of stuff because at least it’s one day all about them.”
At the December 10 party, each child received one to two gifts, a book, a craft, a smaller toy and a chance to win raffle prizes like bikes. Pictures with Santa were available, provided by a former foster-youth who aged out of the system without any photos of herself as a child — something she didn’t want to have happen to others.
“When she aged out, she realized she didn’t have any pictures of herself as a kid,” she said. “Which is something most of us take for granted. So she made it her mission to do that, she does pictures and prints them right then and there so the kids can have them. She never wants that to happen to anyone else.”
DJ Reichel, publications manager, has coordinated United Way’s Hope for the Holidays drive for the past seven years. When Reichel started with United Way, he got involved by designing the promotional material for the drive and was eventually given full reign.
“We’ve been doing it the whole time I’ve been here,” he said. “I like it — I get to meet people in the building I wouldn’t have normally communicated with and it [is] an escape from my everyday job.”
The drive provided gifts for the almost 1,800 youth 20-and-under in foster or kinship care. And while only a fraction of those donations came from United Way, Reichel recognizes the gifts of his fellow employees are from the heart.
“Any amount of generosity is successful and this is a pretty generous group of people,” he said. “I know a lot of us don’t really have a lot of money to give away, so any amount of generosity is pretty cool.”