Cherokee County Division of Family and Children Services’ Secret Santa volunteers have been signing up sponsors for the program since September, but the list of children in need has grown and the nonprofit is asking for more people to step in.
Charity Kemp, Cherokee’s DFCS director, said the nonprofit is active throughout the year, providing foster children with items they need or want, and the Secret Santa program does a lot of work during the holidays.
“Christmas is a time of year when we want the children that are in foster care to be able to experience the same type of things as children who are with their biological families,” Kemp said.
She praised the volunteers who organize the Secret Santa program, and said it’s a yearlong effort to coordinate. Over the past 15 years, Kemp said the program has helped about 3,000 children have a happier holiday season.
Kemp said that the community has always done a great job of pulling together to help the DFCS children, and the Secret Santa program is no exception.
“Sometimes we have limited resources, and we have a community that pulls together to do things for children, and it takes a lot of hard work,” Kemp said.
Gwen Freeman, a Cherokee DFCS Secret Santa volunteer, started working with the program in 2004. She said that as more children have come into the care of DFCS this month, the need has grown and the program is looking to the community for help.
“Getting the word out there is half the battle, but once they know, they usually always come through for us,” Freeman.
About 230 children have already been matched with sponsors in the community, who will go shopping for the child and deliver the toys to the Secret Santa warehouse.
Sponsors receive a short wish list from the child, which includes three needs and three wants, Freeman said. For example, if a child needs clothes, their wish list would state which items and clothing size they need.
The list also includes the child’s favorite color, hobbies and any other comments from the foster parents.
Freeman said that there are at least 30 more children who need sponsors this year, and any new children who enter the state’s care before mid-December will be added to that list.
Freeman said DFCS gets monetary donations this time of year, but that money is used for year-round needs that foster children may have and does not go toward the Secret Santa program.
“What we do need is sponsors, willing to spend their own money and also shop for each of these kids,” she said. “I know that’s a lot more than just writing a check that we’re after this year, but we’ve typically had more people respond by now, and that’s why we’re a little panicked.”
Freeman said there were children who were already still waiting on a sponsor, when more children came into the care of DFCS and were added to the list for Secret Santa.
Anyone wishing to become a sponsor can call the nonprofit at (678) 427-9393; visit their website at www.cherokeeSanta.com; or email the group at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even though sponsors don’t get to meet the children because of DFCS confidentiality requirements, Freeman said sometimes the sponsors receive thank-you notes from the children.
“We do receive ‘thank-you’ notes that we turn around and send out to the sponsor,” Freeman said.
“That’s what we use as our benchmark of how successful the program has been. It’s really rewarding, even if you’ve got a young child who can’t write, they’ll just draw a picture or something like that.”
Freeman said the program is organized over many months, but the main event happens in just two busy weeks.
“We have two weeks and a rented warehouse,” Freeman said.
“The first week, the sponsors drop off everything and we inventory everything in, and the following week, the foster parent or case manager comes and picks up the toys for the child for Christmas.”
The Cherokee DFCS Secret Santa program began in 1980, but another aspect of the program in Cherokee is the Toy Run.
Freeman said that Greg Hartman, of Hartman T/F Cycles on Highway 20, coordinates the event.
The Toy Run event will feature motorcyclists who will ride from a Kroger in the Macedonia community, up to the Moose Lodge in Canton. This year’s run is Dec. 1.
“I think we had about 500 riders last year,” Freeman said. “They come in and drop off the toys that they are donating. Those are miscellaneous toys, those are not for any particular child.”
Freeman said the toys donated from the event are used to “fill in” spaces left from the children’s wish lists. Foster parents and case managers can look through the toys when they come to pick up the children’s gifts from the warehouse, and choose items that are right for each child, Freeman said.