“I’m so thankful for the (Children First/Communities In Schools) Holiday Giving program,” says Ivana, the mother of a high-spirited 4-year-old boy. “We both have experienced trauma this past year, but we are landing on our feet. Having a great holiday is helping both of us. It helps me, and it helps him take his mind off his troubles.”
The Holiday Giving Program she is referring to is a program of Children First/Communities In Schools (CIS). Local children are matched with community sponsors who purchase something the child wants, something the child needs, something to wear and something to read. Once the gifts are wrapped and delivered to the Children First/CIS Family Resource Center, staff members then distribute the gifts to the families.
“This Holiday Giving Program is so much more than just giving out gifts,” says Children First/Communities In Schools (CIS) Latino Outreach Coordinator, Norma Brown. “It’s an opportunity to strengthen our community, create awareness and to bring families together. We have heard from multiple sponsors this year that in lieu of gifts, they request that their friends and families sponsor a child instead.”
Ivana and her mother, Teresa, came to the Family Resource Center at Emma to get a food box. While here, they enrolled Ivana’s 4-year-old son into the Holiday Giving Program and learned of the Positive Parenting Program (Triple P) that is offered free of charge at the center.
“It has been a tough year,” says Ivana, but she has plans for the future. Currently working part time at a chain restaurant where she only gets about 2.5 hours a shift, she is excited about starting the Green Opportunities Kitchen Ready Program. This program is a free culinary training program for low-income adults that prepares graduates for employment in food service. Once she graduates from the Kitchen Ready program, she is planning on entering the prestigious Culinary Arts Program at A-B Tech.
“When she was a little girl, she wouldn’t watch cartoons. She would watch cooking shows,” Teresa says with a laugh and a look of pride.
Teresa and Ivana moved to the Emma community in West Asheville from Florida in 2000, and times were good for a while. Then the economy dropped, jobs were lost, cars broke down, and bills piled up.
When a family is living within narrow margins, one lapsed payment is enough to catapult them into crisis that can take years to catch up. Families coming into the FRCE regularly tell of cuts in SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) and increases in bills, especially during the holiday months.
Food costs have increased over 20 percent since 2007, a recent report shows, while demand for assistance has increased 90 percent since 2007 — from 20,078 Buncombe County residents on food assistance to 38,209. One mother told Children First/CIS staff that she would have had to choose between buying food or gifts for her 7 year-old daughter this year.
Teresa and Ivana found out about the Children First/CIS FRCE by calling the United Way’s 2-1-1 information and referral line. “We were very thankful to hear about this center,” says Teresa. “In these hard circumstances, I’m grateful there is a place to come to that opens their arms with understanding and caring.”
The Children First/CIS Holiday Giving Program is a service that will help this tight-knit family stay on course financially. Although both are working, their combined hours don’t even equal full-time work, so both paychecks are used to provide housing and utilities, with nothing left over for extras.
“We have to remember that the holidays can be a stressful time for some of our families who are living on tight margins,” says Lisa Barlow, Children First/CIS Student support specialist at Emma. “Many of them are working part time, or earning lower than living wage, and they barely make ends meet throughout the year. The holidays can be particularly tough time for them. Last year, we matched around 180 children with sponsors, and this year we have 250 children on our Holiday Giving List.”
One such sponsor is Anna Raustol, who came into the Children First/CIS Family Resource Center to drop off the gifts for the two children she sponsored this year. “Last year, I worked with some parents from my son’s class, and we sponsored five children. This year, I couldn’t get organized, so I just did it on my own.”
Sponsoring the children became a family affair, as her two sons helped wrap while her 12-year-old daughter wrote notes to be added to the gifts. “I want my children to see that life is more than just meeting our own families’ needs. Participating in this Holiday Giving program is a real concrete way to reach out and share.”
“The Holiday Giving Program is always such a huge success,” says Allison Jordan, Executive Director of Children First/CIS. “We are very thankful for the outpouring of support we get during this time. But we know that child poverty is a prevailing issue in our area. Each year, demand increases, while resources become more scarce. One in four children are living in poverty in Buncombe County, and over half of our students are on the free and reduced lunch program. These children need important resources throughout the year — food, clothing, school supplies, and safe and secure housing. We thank you for your support during the holidays, but also ask that you remember these children after the holidays are over.”
Jodi Ford is the outreach and engagement coordinator for Children First/ Communities In Schools of Buncombe County, a local nonprofit that believes all children deserve to reach their full potential. They help achieve this by surrounding children and their families with supports that help them succeed in their schools, communities and homes. That help includes providing food boxes, tutoring in school and after school, getting school supplies, teaching parenting skills and helping families meet basic needs. Along with providing services, Children First/CIS advocates for policies that support families with local and state policy makers. To find out more, go to www.childrenfirstcisbc.org