Over the years I have received many questions regarding the Seed of Hope Holiday Goodie Bag Program, a program that I run each Christmas season that provides basic need and hope items for children in need. As a school counselor who works in a low-income school, I have knowledge of families who suffer financial burdens and are unable to provide gifts for the children at the holiday. Further, I have knowledge of families who fear whether or not food will be on the table or whether or not they will be able to keep their home. So each season I run a little side project out of my school counseling program , one which brings a little more joy and smiling to the families of which I serve. Below I share with you more information about Seed of Hope as well as the operations behind the scenes.
How It Started
Seed of Hope began through a collaborative effort with a local youth Pastor and the Director of a non-profit organization called Seed. I cant remember how it all came to fruition but as social justice advocates and a love for service we recognized a strong need our families had for resources over the annual two-week winter break. Kids who grow up in middle to upper class families often love the winter breaks. They experience traditions and activities and family meals and presents galore. Ask kids in a low income community how their winter break was and the response will often be “boring” or “we didn’t do anything” or “I was home by myself”. Dive deeper and you may discover that there was no warm meals and that they didn’t get anything for Christmas. They may be stuck in their apartments babysitting siblings and watching Netflix. They show up to school with the same raggedy shoes and clothes. It was this conversation over and over again that ignited us to make a difference.
We started small. And we started with only a few families that year. These families were ones that we absolutely knew needed some help over the holiday season. Given that Shaun was a youth pastor, we had a network of some small churches that we believed would be willing to get involved. And after confirmation that they would love to help Seed of Hope was born.
The Community We Serve
Seed of Hope serves families who suffer from financial hardship as indicated by free/reduced lunch status as well as other encountered hardships we are aware of such as loss of job, single-parent household, fixed income due to disability, high medical bills, at risk of losing home, etc… The first few years we sponsored the entire family including parents and adult siblings. However, as Seed of Hope developed, we recognized that while the parents loved receiving some items for themselves they were far more worried about their children being taken care of. With this feedback, Seed of Hope decided to focus only on the students of Voyager Middle School and their siblings. This allowed us to serve more kids too! In lieu of gifts for the parents, we have worked at providing the family with support in the area of food including food baskets and grocery store gift cards.
The Seed of Hope application has transformed over the years. The application is a form that each family fills out to verify their low-income status (although we don’t hand them the application without knowing their story) and gives them the opportunity to share why they need help. The application also gives logistical information such as when and how they will pick up the gifts and places to fill in their information in case drop off or delivery will be necessary. Further there is a question asking families whether they could use help with food or not. There is a clear due date for the application with clear directions on who to submit the application to. In our program, the application is due the first week of November. Yes this means we are already selecting families in October and handing out applications in the middle of October. This timeline is important in order to give your sponsors enough time to purchase gifts and raise money prior to the gift pickup date.
In addition, each family must fill out a form for each child between 0-18. This form allows us to collect information on the specific child’s needs and wants as well as logistical information such as name, age, gender, and interests. We ask for the family to fill in a couple of “need” items such as shoes, leggings, pants, hoodies, etc… and a couple of “want” items for this child. It is helpful to put on the form an example to show them that we would like as much detail as possible about this child. The more detail the more likely they are to get what they want. Yes, our families are grateful for what they are given but our children, teens, and tweens no matter how poor still have specific desires and hopes. Van shoes and nike hoodies are popular at every level of socioeconomic status. It is also important to share with the families on the form that our organization does not do in large ticket items. We share that we will not be providing big ticket items like televisions, I-pads, cell phones, screens of any kinds etc… I have seen kids put skate boards and video games on the forms and the sponsors fulfill them no problem. But this is a bonus and definitely not an expectation. These are the forms we give to donors to learn about the child and what their hopes and needs are.
Our counseling team and parent liaison in our school building have a meeting in the beginning of October where we determine which families we will be offering the program to. The families involved in the program are all based on need. At this time, we divide the applications among us and therefore the dissemination of applications does not fall on one person. To get the application out, I call the family and tell them about the program. I ask them if they qualify for the program based on (1) free and/or reduced lunch status (2) not able to provide gifts for their children, and (3) not receiving gifts from another organization. If they qualify (based on their own perception of their situation) I then ask whether or not they would like to participate. If they would like to participate then I ask them to either come into the school to fill out the application or I send the application home with their teenager and I walk them through the best way to fill it out. Often times families need help with the application. I make clear the due date. Most families say they will have it to me within a few days. I love calling the families because it also gives me the opportunity to find out any additional needs they might have. For example, this year I found out that a whole family needed bedding. I also discover each year what other basic needs item the families need. I write these on the applications as a bonus in case the donors have the means/resources to do more.
When the applications start coming in they are returned to me. I review them as if I was a donor, shopping for their child. If there is missing information then myself or one of the other school counselors personally call the family and find out more information. Sometimes parents will forget to put a size or they don’t get specific enough. For example, a parent may write “shoes”. This is very broad. Tennis shoes? Snow boots? Booties? Another example is when a parent puts toys. What can they mean? There a million in one toys for a 2 year old.
I have to admit. Seed of Hope has improved over the years. There have been some very humorous situations along the way. One year, a sponsor purchased clothes for the wrong gender. A mother came to pick up things for her 12 year old son and everything was pink. This may have been okay for some kiddos but not this one. It is why checking on details is very important. And sometimes the sizes are all wrong. I would say logistically this is the hardest thing.
Once the application is 100% complete, I scan it into the computer and upload it to a shared google doc folder. In this folder, there is also a shared excel spreadsheet to keep track of the children being sponsored and their donors. I use the following columns:
- Family Name
- Child First Name
- Application Complete (check box)
- Number (I assign each kid a number)
- Pick-Up Confirmation
This shared spreadsheet allows anyone involved behind the scenes to keep track of information. After the collection of the family applications, the next step or even simultaneous step is to get them sponsored. This is where we will track which organization or company is a donor to which kids. Also, this is the form where we can add any notes about additional family needs we should be aware of. Also, we track conformation of pick-up and any information regarding pick up. Everything should be tracked online so that everyone involved can see the information. This eliminates a lot of unnecessary phone calls and is a much more efficient system.
Do not do this on your own. In the first years I partnered exclusively with a local youth pastor and we used our connections in the community to get sponsors for the kids. I have also always involved my counseling team and the parent liaison at my school to be a part of the application process. If you don’t have a counseling team or parent liaison I suggest finding your ally before you even begin. This past year, however, I lost my partner who moved to Oregon. As a result, I almost didn’t do the program until I had another person step up and take the charge and that was my mother. Behind the scenes my mother can take on some tasks that are needed including supporting some organizations by picking up gifts, making giving tree tags (if the organization needs help), sending out thank you cards, organizing the donations into the proper bags, purchasing the bags, shopping for children’s gifts as money comes in (which includes finding the best deals), and even keeping my on my toes.
How many children Seed of Hope sponsors depends on our community stakeholders otherwise known as our donors. Given that Seed of Hope has grown over time I am comfortable handing out 50 children forms for sponsorship in mid-October. This is because I now have repeat donors. Once I have a better idea of the number of donors then I will get more applications out to families.
Let me tell you a little bit about donors. People want to give. Organizations want to give. Companies want to give. By organizing a program, I am literally providing people an opportunity to do what their heart already desires. It gives people joy to give and I have a forum for people to do so.
As a start, each year I take a moment to reflect on the resources already available to me. In year one, this was members of a few small local churches and a youth pastor. However, given that I have been doing this program for about 6 seasons now, I have donors who give every year. These groups of people have been a part of the end goal since day one. Here are some ideas of where to start.
- Friends. My friends and family members were my first donors! Since day one I have had some of my closest friends and my family help me with Seed of Hope. I started by sharing the kids stories as well as my vision with them. At first they gave some items and money. However eventually they took off as sponsors of whole families of children and some have even recruited their workplaces to get in on the fun.
- Facebook Friends. For my friends who live far away, I involve them through an Amazon Wish List. That way they can be a part of the giving process without having to deliver the gift anywhere. This gives people an opportunity to give who may live far away. I also accept cash through Paypal or Venmo.
- Organizations. I thought about local organizations in my community who have similar missions around the holiday/christmas season such as small churches. Because this program first began in collaboration with a youth pastor, I learned a lot about how to get churches involved. Find the people who have the passion to serve others like you and invite them for coffee. Ask them to take the lead on sponsoring some children. Trust me. They will do amazing work!
- Formal/Informal Groups. Think outside the box. My friends mother has an all women’s group. They used to go out for a fancy brunch each year to celebrate christmas. Now, they get together, eat a less expensive meal, and go shopping for children in need. What groups are you friends a part of? Reel them in. And don’t forget about work groups and teams. There are so many work groups that want to come together to do something good for the community.
- For Profit Organizations/Companies. I have found over the years that there are a lot of companies that want to give back to their community. And they love organizations where all of the donations go directly to human beings (no overhead costs!). Each year I ask companies that I have a personal connection to. For example, hair salons, physical therapists, and gyms are great companies that often want to give back. But don’t leave anything out. Tell them what you need.
- Teachers/Staff Members. I try to keep things simple with my staff. Obviously they are a great resource but I also want to be cognizant that they already give so much. I ask my staff members for grocery store gift cards to help with families in need of food. Without a doubt they love to help and the gift cards always come in! And I do have a few teachers who have been involved with the program and have gotten their entire family involved.
- Classrooms from other schools. In my district there are lower-income schools and higher income schools so over the years I have partnered with a teacher from one of the other middle schools to collect donations for our kids. It has looked a little different every year. Sometimes this teacher has her classroom sponsor children and other times they have collected basic need items to supplement the gifts with basic need items like laundry detergent, cleaner, canned food etc…This has been a great resource and a great opportunity for the classroom of students to learn about giving.
Everyone is a potential donor. I have the mindset that I will accept any kind of donation. I know that everyone gives a little different but I found that having a written statement/letter with clear things that you need is very helpful and will result in receiving donations that fit your goal and vision. Develop a letter with all the ways that the donor may be able to give and disseminate it to as many people as possible. The letter that I send is similar to this:
Fill a Holiday Goodie Bag is a family holiday assistance program that gives children from low-income families a couple of gifts to feel joyful about. In partnership with local churches, organizations, families, and individuals, Fill a Holiday Goodie Bag typically gives a bag of goodies to over 60 kids for the holidays.
Children qualify for the Holiday Goodie Bag based on free/reduced lunch status and need. Stories involve ones of lost jobs, apartment fires, challenges with disabilities, and low-paying jobs. Experiences range from homelessness to inability to pay bills. The goal is for each child to receive (1) a need item, (2) a want item, and (3) age appropriate stocking stuffers.
In order to meet the needs for Christmas 2019, we need you to invest. A few ways to get involved with Fill A Holiday Goodie Bag is:
- Sponsor a family of children. This means that you can commit to purchasing two items: (1) a need item and (2) a want item for each child as well as supply them each with stocking stuffers. We will work with you to find a family that fits your resources. If you choose to sponsor a family we will e-mail you a copy of your family’s application which include “needs” and “wants” for gifts.
- Commit to sponsoring a child or more than one. This means that you can commit to purchasing two items: (1) a need item and (2) a want item. We will send you the child’s hopes and needs.
- Donate stocking stuffers. Each child will receive age appropriate stocking stuffers. We are looking for hygiene items for teens (e.g. deodorant; smelly lotions; shampoo, conditioner, toothbrush/toothpaste, hair ties, body wash, lufa, Chapstick, face wash) and other goods/small toys for children.
- Donate money. Don’t have time to shop or live far away? Feel free to donate money. We will accept money by Venmo, check, or even cash.
- Donate grocery store gift cards. Our families could use grocery store cards. Preferred locations are Fred Meyers, Winco, and Albertsons.
The Goodie Bag
So what exactly is in a goodie bag? A goodie bag is filled with items that the child wants and needs. For a teenager, a typical goodie bag would be a pair of shoes that they want (e.g. vans, converse, nikes, booties), a hoodie or something similar, and a couple of items they asked for like art supplies, nail polish, car models, or cologne/perfume/smelly lotions. For younger children, a few clothing items and toys are commons. We purchase the actual bag from stores like TJMAx or Marshalls at discount prices and add a name tag to each goody bag.
The gifts are picked up by families unwrapped. This offers the family the opportunity to check sizes and to have the joy of wrapping the gifts themselves. It also makes it a little more inclusive for families who don’t necessarily celebrate christmas or who need some of the basic need items before Christmas day.
A lot of work goes into the final week before goodie bag pick up. This is because it is my responsibility to pick up the gifts from organizations and donors and separate into the proper bag for easy pick up by the families. Let me give you a few examples. A local church donated items for three kids. My mom picked them up at the church and brought them back to her house. They were labelled but were not in any particular order. My mom had to sort through all the items and get them into the proper bags. She also checked to make sure that the sizes of any clothing relatively matched what was on the application for that child. Another example is pick up from companies. For example, this year one group of employees (from a very well known company) donated items for 16 kids. (It started with one connection and built over the years!). While two employees organized the giving tree program, my mom had to pick up the gifts from their work site and bring them back to her house. Again, while things were labeled, it does require sorting and getting all the proper items in the proper bags. It all takes time. But please note there are a lot of people willing to help. I didn’t have a car to transport items from my gym to my parents house about 30 minutes away. A lovely couple at the gym heard me talking about it and volunteered their truck and services. Boom!
Another activity that takes time is purchasing gifts for kids who are sponsored through money donations. This brings my mom and I a lot of joy and we love doing the shopping. Think black Friday shopping but spending other peoples money for kids in need and finding the best deals ever so that the money stretches far and wide! However, it can take a lot of time that someone needs to have. And often times we are shopping for last minute families literally until the day before pick up. Or we are shopping for items if bags were adequately filled (which is a rarity) or the sizes were wrong (more common!)
In addition, when we collect household items for hygiene items it takes time to sort them and make sure that they are most equitably distributed among the kids. The same goes for gift cards. This is usually an evening project in itself!
Seed of Hope operates off a zero dollar budget. All of our operations exist because of the donations that we collect. The only expense we have is the purchasing of the goodie bags and I get that covered by my tier one donors- my family members.
Last Minute Families
Working in a low-income school every year we get what I refer to as “last minute families”. These are families who have a need brought to our attention closer to the winter break. Thus, we work to sponsor them last minute. My favorite “last minute” story was a family we sponsored when their apartment caught fire. They were in desperate need of basic items and I had a community of people who could help. This year I had two boys whose mom lost her job and was about to lose her apartment in December. A staff member found out about their story and asked if we could sponsor them. I told the staff member that I would be able to sponsor her if I could find a donor. I had the mom fill out the application. Then I worked my magic. How so? I put their story out there until I got them sponsored. Sometimes that means one person takes them on. Other times it means a combination of donors work together to get the items the family needs.
In the past we have done pick up at a local church. It was a convenient location and allowed us to set up ahead of the pick up time. This year was the first year pick up was at the middle school in which I worked and it went great. On the day of pick up, after school lunches were over we had all of the goodie bag delivered to the school and placed behind the stage curtain. I chose this spot specifically because I didn’t want the gifts to be visible to students leaving for the day. I also chose to bring the goodie bags to school the day of so that they didn’t have to be stored and locked up anywhere.
Given that we sponsored 72 kids, making up a total of 26 families it required 3 very full cars to transport everything. I lined up volunteers a head of time to pick up the goodie bags which were sorted and numbered from my parents house. At the time of set up I had additional volunteers available at the school to unload and get everything lined up in order.
To keep track of all the goodie bags, each kid is assigned a number and the number is placed on the bag. As families arrived at the welcome table I wrote down their kids names and the numbers assigned to them on a post-it note. An adult volunteer (school counselor, teacher, etc…) then went to the back and retrieved the bags. They set the bags up on carts if they were a large family. While they were waiting for the bags we had household items and food items available for families to pick out and take home what they needed. We literally handed them a bag to shop with. Any additional donations that we received of which were not placed in a goodie bag were also made available on lunch room tables for families to take. No questions asked! And first come first serve.
Some years I have even offered a hot chocolate bar or something for the parents/guardians and children if they come to nibble on. Its nice to make a little conversation and warm beverage seems to always do the trick.
During this time I also give the parent/guardian a gift card if available.We cry. We hug. There is gratitude. And there is hope. And we met our purpose.
The time of pick up is after school for one hour on the Tuesday before mid-winter break. For those families who are not able to make it due to work or transportation, the school counseling team works together to coordinate either a pick-up or a drop-off the following day. I have to emphasize that within this program I do not allow donors to drop gifts off directly at families homes. Almost all of my donors in time have asked if they can do this and my answer is always this. Seed of Hope does not drop off gifts for safety reasons. Unfortunately many of our families do not live in communities where it is safe to walk in with bag full of gifts for either the person delivering or potentially the family receiving. Second of all, it can be embarrassing for the family and or kids involved in the program to have other people in their home. I want families to be able to feel good about the program and not have to worry about strangers in their home. I think however in smaller communities or more tight-knit communities this might be a more practical practice.
I love Seed of Hope because of the impact it makes on the families we serve. As the coordinator and a school counselor, I get to see first hand the effect it has. Imagine the mother who is relieved because she had something for her kids to receive for Christmas. Imagine the mother who knows that her children will get a few warm meals over the winter break. Imagine the mother who knows her children will be clothed in something they love or have something to play with over break. I know that there are some people who may be ungrateful but I can guarantee that the majority of the families you serve will be so thankful and have so much gratitude for the service that you provide. Even a little bit can go a long way.
The Thank You
And it couldn’t be done without the support and help of many community stakeholders, companies, organizations, and of course the Voyager Middle School staff. So we find a lot of value in verbally and in written form thanking our friends, family members and organizations for contributing. I always tell them I look forward to partnering with them again next year. It is because of them that all of this is possible.
If you have any additional questions feel free to message me on instagram or facebook @iloveschoolcounseling