It’s never too early to start getting into the Christmas spirit, especially for foster children who would like to unwrap something special this December.
Sampson County’s Department of Social Services (DSS) is continuing a holiday tradition with its Christmas Cheer Program, an annual effort assisted by community partners and individuals that helps foster children and others experience a merry Christmas despite circumstances that have thrust them into situation where they might not otherwise have one. This year, as separate toy drive, headed up by a member of the Lakewood community, will assist the DSS outreach.
“We’ve been providing for our foster children for years,” said Tracey Odom, foster care/social work supervisor at DSS. “In the past we had a large donation come from some of our community businesses but that, over the years, has been depleted. So this year, we reached out to the community — people wanting to adopt children or give financial donations.”
A letter was sent to civic groups, churches and businesses in the community about the need, hoping to raise awareness and support of the Christmas cause. The response has been tremendous, said Odom.
“We have more than 130 children in custody and about 30 adult wards,” she noted. “We sent out these letters and we’ve had an overwhelming response from our community. One thing that is unique about our Christmas Cheer program is 100 percent stays here in our county and 100 percent of the funds we receive are used for the benefit of children and adults in our community.”
Not a dime is spent toward overhead or administrative costs and Odom said every donation — “every bit of it goes toward the children” — is appreciated. In an effort to deliver a great Christmas to Sampson’s foster children, she is hoping to have all funds and unwrapped donated gifts by the first week of December so any additional shopping can be done.
There is a DSS Christmas party for those children set for Dec. 21. The time in between will allow for any gaps to be met in providing presents to the children.
“Our wish is that every child have at least a full outfit and something from their toy wish list,” Odom stated.
Wellman Oil Company, Star Telephone Membership Corporation and numerous other businesses, organizations and individuals have previously donated toward the cause. Odom said she hopes for similar support this year, and has already received plenty of calls.
“Before we had not really reached out to the community. We would have churches call and adopt children but this year we have reached out to the community — and they’ve been very responsive,” she said. “We’re hoping all of our little fella and girls get adopted and we’ll have very little shopping we have to do the week before our party. We hope every child will have a blessed Christmas.”
Lynn Pritchard is one resident who wants to see that happen for the local children.
After years of tossing around the idea for Sampson County, Pritchard is organizing a toy drive to be held at Lakewood Country Club on Dec. 5, starting at 5 p.m., with the public urged to bring an unwrapped gift. Pritchard has already been in contact with DSS officials to make sure all of the gifts are distributed to children.
“It’s for the Sampson County children who may or may not get anything for Christmas,” said Pritchard, who is from Brunswick County, where for the past 15 years she has conducted annual toy drives. “It something to help families in need.”
That Brunswick effort started small and grew in recent years to the point where moving trucks had to be used to transport the gifts to DSS. She wants the same in Sampson.
“I really wanted to do it here as a way to give back,” said Pritchard, whose husband Curt is the golf pro at Lakewood. “My children have graduated high school and moved on to college, so it seemed like a really good year to do it.”
She said her children were fortunate enough to make “long, healthy happy” lists at Christmas and receive such of their most wanted items.
“I know for some children making a list is the last thing on their mind. It’s just not something that is possible for some families, so for me this is a way to give back, to make sure every child can have a good Christmas,” Pritchard said.
Odom said that is true. Foster children asked to make Christmas lists find the process almost foreign because they are not used to it.
“We get needs instead of wants,” Odom said of the lists. “It’s very humbling to see these children who haven’t had the healthy Christmases some of us have enjoyed.”
“I know in a lot of these families, if the parents, foster parents or family members can do anything for the children, it’s normally going to be the necessities,” Pritchard added. “I wanted to keep it as close to toys as possible, something they would be excited to wake up on Christmas to get.”
Pritchard said she plans to have finger foods and refreshments, as well as wine and other beverages at the country club. Any assistance she can get from local merchants or small business owners toward nominal party expenses or food itself would be greatly appreciated, but she will pick up the expense otherwise, she said.
“For me to get this started and make it successful I feel like I need to make sure that when (donors) are coming, it’s not just a drop-off. There will be music there, finger foods and socializing,” Pritchard remarked. “The main goal is for the children, but the way it was in Brunwick it got a little bigger every year … it progressed.”
She has talked about having such a drive in Sampson for the past 10 years since the Pritchards located to Spivey’s Corner in 2006. She hopes this year will be the first of many.
For anyone who is unable to attend the party, Pritchard said, the doors will be open at the golf course from Nov. 27 to Dec. 5 for those wishing to drop off toys or monetary donations. She has already had inquiries from golfers wanting to donate money if Pritchard could buy the gifts. That is no problem.
“I am more than willing to do whatever it takes to make this a success,” she remarked. “If they want to give $20, it will all go toward toys. I want this to start out big and finish even bigger and better for Sampson County.”
Odom said the efforts of people like Pritchard and others who have already donated, and will over the coming weeks, hold a great importance that goes beyond Christmas.
“As much as the need gets met (at DSS) throughout the year, sometimes there’s not a lot extra to meet the want — the baby doll, the remote control car, mp3 player,” said Odom. “All of these children are in our care and custody because of something traumatic that has happened in their family. So to be able to take that trauma away for one day a year, and them to remember they are kids, is really important for us.”
Donations to the Christmas Cheer Program are accepted throughout the year. Those interested in donating toward next year’s effort can contact Tracey Odom, Dene Johnston or Lynn Fields at the Sampson County Department of Social Services, 910-592-4200. To donate to the Lakewood toy drive, contact Curt Pritchard at 910-525-4424.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.